Six Questions for Teach for America

Why would the Pittsburgh school board invite an organization into our schools that could potentially harm students and the district itself? I can’t answer that question, but it appears that is what they are about to do by signing a deal with Teach for America.

Teach for America (TFA) recruits bright young people, fresh from our top colleges, gives them five weeks of training, and sends them to work in mostly urban school districts. To understand the potential problems with TFA, you have to separate these young recruits from the program itself. Some of my own former students have gone into TFA, which is now widely considered an excellent resume builder and has become quite competitive on some college campuses. A couple years ago, a whopping 18% of Yale’s senior class applied to the program. [New York Times, 7-11-10]

While TFA may be a good thing for these young people who wish to experience “the real world” for two years before moving onto their “real careers,” the program is not necessarily helping students. In fact, it may be hurting them. And there are some very big concerns about the damage TFA is doing to public education more generally.

The Pittsburgh Public School board opened the door to TFA when it hired the outside consultants Bellwether and FSG at the beginning of this year to help close the district’s looming budget gap: their winning proposal promised to help the district recruit “high quality teachers” by “building a strong pipeline of talent through partnerships with local universities as well as with major alternative certification providers such as New Leaders, Teach for America, and the Urban Teacher Residency.” [Bellwether and FSG proposal, p. 12] At the time, the district’s director of strategic initiatives in charge of the Bellwether/FSG contract was Cate Reed, a TFA alumna who has since left to do development work for, yes, Teach for America. [Post-Gazette, 8-21-13] Meanwhile, TFA has set up shop in Pittsburgh and is now hiring a Founding Executive Director to plan their expansion into the city by next fall.

Here are six questions the Pittsburgh Public School board should ask before inking any deal with Teach for America:

1.  Will TFA help our students? Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig at the University of Texas Austin and his colleagues “have taken a look at every peer-reviewed research study that examines TFA and student achievement.” Their conclusion? “TFA is NOT a slam dunk.” Previously they found that “students of novice TFA teachers perform significantly less well in reading and mathematics than those of credentialed beginning teachers.” [Vasquez Heilig, J. & Jez, S. (2010). Teach For America: A review of the evidence.] A widely publicized recent Mathematica study suggested that TFA instructors are effective and give their students a 2.6 month boost in learning over traditionally trained teachers. [Dept. of Education, Sept. 2013]

This sounds good. However, in a technical review of that work, Dr. Vasquez Heilig points out that this number requires context, noting that “class size reduction has 286% more impact than TFA.” What’s more, a recent analysis demonstrates that early childhood education has “1214% more impact than the TFA effect reported by Mathematica.” [Cloaking Inequality, 10-21-13] The bottom line? TFA doesn’t look like a silver bullet for our students and other initiatives such as class size reduction and early childhood education have an exponentially larger impact on student learning.

2.  Will TFA hurt our students? TFA corps members sign up for a two-year commitment and then most go on to other careers, contributing to the churn in the lives of students, many of whom are already facing great instabilities. Education historian Diane Ravitch calls TFA, “Teach for Awhile.” About 20-30% of TFA members stay in the classroom 3-5 years, and only 5% are still teaching in their initial placement by the seventh year. [Cloaking Inequality, 10-21-13] Many TFA alumni are now speaking out about their experiences working with some of our neediest students. With only five weeks of training, they say they were ill-prepared to work with troubled kids, could do little more than “teach to the test,” and worry that they really were harming children. [See for example Washington Post 2-28-13; John Bilby; Cloaking Inequality, 9-20-13 and 8-6-13] These are testimonies worth serious attention.

3.  Will TFA solve our staffing needs? Pittsburgh is apparently considering a deal with TFA because of a shortage of middle level and high school math and science teachers. The administration claims that TFA will help them get young people of color to fill these positions – a worthy goal, but at the last board meeting, TFA representatives said they could not guarantee that this would happen. If we truly have a staffing problem, why aren’t we working with local universities to place their recent graduates and “grow our own” regional talent? What happened to previous new-teacher programs in the district? I’ve also heard that our hiring cycle is quite late in the year, putting us at a disadvantage when it comes to making competitive offers: why don’t we address this simple calendar issue? I find it hard to believe that with at least seven teaching-degree-granting colleges and universities in Southwest PA, Pittsburgh can’t figure out a way to fill its ranks with highly qualified, trained teachers who want to make teaching their career, and perhaps even stay in their hometown.

Significantly, Dr. Vasquez Heilig and his colleagues conclude that, “The evidence suggests that districts may benefit from using TFA personnel to fill teacher shortages when the available labor pool consists of temporary or substitute teachers or other novice alternatively and provisionally certified teachers likely to leave in a few years. Nevertheless, if educational leaders plan to use TFA teachers as a solution to the problem of shortages, they should be prepared for constant attrition and the associated costs of ongoing recruitment and training.” [Vasquez Heilig, J. & Jez, S. (2010). Teach For America: A review of the evidence.]

4.  Will TFA address our racial achievement gap? TFA’s recent job announcement points to the low number of black men going to college saying, “We believe that Teach For America corps members can play a vital role in the fight for educational equity in Pittsburgh.” [Linked In, posted October 2013] The implication is that by placing TFA instructors in our neediest schools that somehow these bright-eyed 22 year olds will solve our racial achievement gap. Do we have any credible research showing that youth and enthusiasm are the keys to this complex, persistent problem? Dr. Vasquez Heilig’s analysis of TFA outcomes answers that question this way: “The lack of a consistent impact…should indicate to policymakers that TFA is likely not the panacea that will reduce disparities in educational outcomes.” [Vasquez Heilig, J. & Jez, S. (2010). Teach For America: A review of the evidence.]

5.  What will TFA cost us? TFA operates like a temp agency, tacking on a finder’s fee for its recruits. It charges districts $3,000 to $5,000 per instructor per year – and that’s on top of the regular entry level teacher’s salary each TFA recruit receives from the district. How is that saving us money in the middle of this budget deficit crisis that has already forced the district to furlough hundreds of our kids’ teachers? To makes matters worse, TFA seeks out grants from states where it is doing business (it has a plan to increase state collections to $350 million in 2015). That is more of our taxpayer money that ought to be going towards equitable funding of our public schools.

And it’s clear that TFA wants to tap into other local resources: its current job ad says that Pittsburgh’s Founding Executive Director will “Grow a sustainable, diversified local funding base that will include gifts from individuals, corporations, and foundations; district and local public funding; and possibly an annual benefit dinner.” [Linked In, posted October 2013] Our city is not a gravy train and those valuable resources ought to be going to support students in public schools, not TFA. Make no mistake, TFA is a huge organization with a $100 million endowment and annual revenues close to $300 million. [All figures from Politico, October 2013] If TFA really wants to help Pittsburgh students, it could help us with our $46 million budget gap.

6.  Does TFA support public education? Here’s where the school board really better sit up and take notice. TFA has become a political powerhouse with huge political clout. In the middle of our federal budget standoff last month, TFA managed to renew a provision that defines teachers-in-training (including TFA recruits) as “highly qualified” so they can continue to take charge of our children’s classrooms. [Washington Post, 10-16-13] Right now TFA has seven alumni working for senators, representatives and the House Education committee through its new Capitol Hill Fellows program, paid for by Arthur Rock. A wealthy venture capitalist from San Francisco, Rock sits on TFA’s board and according to Politico, “has become a leading financier of education reform. He has made sizable donations to legislative and school board candidates across the country who support expanding charter schools and, in some cases, vouchers. Until recently, Rock also sat on the board of the Children’s Scholarship Fund, which advocates public subsidies to send low-income children to private and parochial schools.” [Politico, October 2013]

Like Mr. Rock, TFA is funneling money into school board races all over the country where TFA alumns are running: this year a New Jersey teacher tracked hundreds of thousands of dollars channeled to candidates promoting corporate-style and privatization reforms. [Jersey Jazzman, 10-17-13] A Massachusetts teacher recently dug into the role of TFA in urban charter schools, and discovered why the program is expanding in districts where teachers are getting laid off: “In city after city, TFA has largely abandoned its earlier mission of staffing hard-to-fill positions in public schools, serving instead as a placement agency for urban charters. In Chicago, however, TFA’s role appears to go far beyond providing labor for the fast-growing charter sector.” She found documents indicating that TFA hoped to “dramatically expand the number of charter schools in the city,” with plans to support 52 new charters at the exact moment the district proposed closing more than 50 traditional public schools. [EduShyster, 9-9-13]

In Pittsburgh, TFA wants its new Executive Director to “Develop and evolve a strategy for maintaining and growing our public support, from district, local, and state sources,” and to “Establish relationships with school districts and charter management organizations to place corps members with an eye toward maximizing scale and sustainability.” [Linked In, posted October 2013] No doubt about it: they’re planning to stay. And grow. In a big way.

Is this the organization that we want to invite in Pittsburgh’s front door? I’m not convinced from the review of the evidence that Teach for America will help our students. And I am deeply concerned that it may directly harm students, while costing us resources we don’t have, and failing to address our actual staffing needs. Here’s one last question: Can we show TFA the back door and say, no thanks?

Diane Ravitch Launched, Yinzer-Style

On Monday, Yinzers were the first in the country to see Diane Ravitch’s new book, The Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. Released nationally on Tuesday, the book is already #1 in public policy and has moved up to #104 on the Amazon top-sellers list. Pittsburgh helped to launch a crucial conversation – and what a launch!

An audience of nearly 1,000 people packed into Temple Sinai to hear Dr. Ravitch, an education historian, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, and widely acclaimed expert on public schools. The event was part-rally and part-lecture, with stand out performances by the Pittsburgh Obama steel drum band, the Pittsburgh Dilworth drummers, and the Pittsburgh Westinghouse Bulldogs high-stepping marching band. And because we are an education justice movement – and movements must make music together – we stood side by side to sing the anthem We Shall Not Be Moved.

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After a welcome from Rabbi Symons, I offered some framing remarks, putting the fight for public education in local context. I talked about what we are seeing here in Southwest PA and the links between the de-funding of our schools, privatization, school closures, increased class sizes, and high-stakes-testing. In her lecture, Dr. Ravitch explained how and why these things are happening all across the country, promoted by a corporate-style-reform movement. One after the next, she held up the promises of the reformers and pronounced them “hoaxes.”

In her talk, and backed up by pages of data in her book, Dr. Ravitch offered abundant evidence that the reformers’ “solutions” for public schools are actually hurting our children. From cyber charter schools, to parent trigger laws, to vouchers, mass school closures, merit-pay, high-stakes-testing, and mis-used teacher evaluation systems, she demonstrated the perverse consequences of these efforts. Most crucially, she explained why we must pay attention to racial segregation and poverty – and how privatization does nothing to solve the larger issues that are truly affecting our students and schools.

Dr. Ravitch offered no silver bullets. But she did offer plenty of evidence-based solutions. She advocates for pre-natal care for all expectant mothers; universal, quality early childhood education; smaller class sizes; a re-thinking of charter school laws so that public schools and charter schools can truly collaborate; wrap-around services such as healthcare and social services in the schools; tests designed by teachers to measure student learning and the elimination of most high-stakes-testing; efforts to strengthen the teaching profession; and the protection of local, democratic control of public schools.

Sound familiar? This is exactly the vision that our community has put forward this year through dozens of town hall meetings, rallies, neighborhood discussions, conversations with legislators, and grassroots actions for our schools. [“A Vision for Great Public Schools”] Never once have we heard someone say we should focus on getting rid of teachers, closing schools, or slashing budgets. On Monday night, I said, “We’re not interested in talking about how to fire teachers – we want more teachers in classrooms with our kids,” and one-thousand people roared together, “Enough is enough!”

In her Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch promotes the kind of school day and rich education that we have in mind for all kids:

If we mean to lift the quality of education, we should insist that all children have a full curriculum, including history, civics, literature, foreign languages, physical education, mathematics, and science. We should make sure that every child has the chance to sing, dance, write, act, play instruments, sculpt, design, and build. Students need a reason to come to school, not as a duty, but for the joy that comes from performance and imagination. [p. 325]

Several student leaders from the Westinghouse Bulldogs high-stepping marching band joined Dr. Ravitch on stage to explain what has happened to arts education, music, and band at their high school. Despite the proud Westinghouse legacy that includes many of this country’s jazz greats (think Billy Strayhorn, Al Aaron, Mary Lou Williams and a host of others), the ragtag band has almost no instruments, hasn’t had new uniforms in more than a dozen years, and can’t even afford to buy drumsticks. Yet the students are passionate about holding their band together. In response to their statement, the Rev. David Thornton issued a full-throttle call-to-action to the audience and our collection raised over $1,600 to support the Bulldogs.

But a collection is not enough. The fact that we shouldn’t have to do this at all, is precisely Diane Ravitch’s point. Our public schools are public goods, and we must treat them that way – not as businesses making widgets. Public education is a community responsibility, but the driving ideals of privatization – competition, choice, measurement, rank sorting, punishment, efficiencies – undermine that shared obligation. Dr. Ravitch explains,

The more that policy makers promote choice – charters and vouchers – the more they sell the public on the idea that their choice of a school is a decision they make as individual consumers, not as citizens. As a citizen, you become invested in the local public school; you support it and take pride in its accomplishments. You see it as a community institution worthy of your support, even if you don’t have children in the school. … You think of public education as an institution that educations citizens, future voters, members of your community. But as school choice becomes the basis for public policy, the school becomes not a community institution but an institution that meets the needs of its customers. [p. 311]

That is why it’s so important that our community is standing up together now for public schools. On Monday, Dr. Ravitch said she believes “the tide is turning” against corporate-style reforms and that parents, in particular, are the “sleeping giant” that will be key to change. Here in Yinzer Nation, that giant is waking up and joining forces with students, teachers, and other community members. Witness the new coalition of community organizations, faith-based groups, and labor that hosted the event. Called Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh, it consists of: Action United, One Pittsburgh, PA Interfaith Impact Network, Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, SEIU, and Yinzercation.

In addition to these groups, we had so many generous co-sponsors – including an impressive collaboration of seven of our region’s colleges and universities – that we were able to keep the evening completely free and open to the public. The co-sponsors were: Carlow University School of Education, Chatham University Department of Education, Duquesne University School of Education, First Unitarian Church Social Justice Endowment, PA State Education Association, Robert Morris University School of Education & Social Sciences, Slippery Rock University College of Education, Temple Sinai, University of Pittsburgh School of Education, and Westminster College Education Department.

Children participated in activities provided by volunteers from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University’s HearMe project. Mystery Lovers Bookshop was on hand with special permission from the publisher to sell early copies of the new book. They sold out in a matter of minutes and audience members waited patiently in a long line at the end of the evening to meet Dr. Ravitch and get their books signed.

The crowd of 1,000 included many elected officials and policy makers who will help to shape the future of our schools. They included the Democratic nominee for Mayor of Pittsburgh, Bill Peduto, current and incoming members of Pittsburgh City Council and the school board, superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools Dr. Linda Lane, Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate John Hanger, and school board members and superintendents from school districts as far flung as Franklin Regional, Wilmington Area, South Butler County, Carlynton, and Chartiers Valley.

We earned a lot of media attention, too, with stories on KDKA and WESA (the local NPR affiliate). The Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh City Paper both ran feature articles with photographs. [Post-Gazette, 9-17-13; Pittsburgh City Paper, 9-18-13]

In short, this was a fantastic Yinzer-style launch to Diane Ravitch’s national book tour. And she has left Yinzer Nation with all the evidence we need to combat the de-funding and privatization of our schools.

Help us keep this grassroots, education justice movement growing in Southwest PA: please be sure to subscribe to this blog, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter so we can stay connected!

Diane Ravitch. Monday. Be There!

If you do just one thing for public education this month, come hear Diane Ravitch on Monday evening – and bring a friend. Seriously. This is a huge event for our education justice movement in Southwest PA and a crucial opportunity to be a part of the conversation about the future of our schools.

Don’t miss this rare – and free – opportunity to hear widely acclaimed education historian and best-selling author Dr. Ravitch speak on her new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. She is the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education and named by the Wall Street Journal as a “whistle-blower extraordinaire.”

The event will be at Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill (5505 Forbes Avenue / 15217). Doors open at 5PM. The lecture begins at 6PM.

Do you have friends wondering about school closures? The massive budget cuts? Increasing class sizes and high-stakes-testing? Have them spend just one hour with Diane Ravitch to learn why there is a better way forward for our kids and our schools.

We are honored to have Dr. Ravitch here for the premiere of her book, which will not be released nationally until the following day. Pittsburghers will be the first in the country to see this incredibly important new work! (I can say that with confidence because the publisher sent advance copies of the book to education bloggers and I’ve already had the pleasure of reading it.) I am pleased that Mystery Lovers Bookshop will be on hand with copies and that Dr. Ravitch will stay after her talk to sign books.

BookPreview
We can seat 1,000 people and it will be on a first come, first seated basis. Many local and state legislators will be joining us as well as school board members and district administrators. Dr. Ravitch will host a Q&A following her talk, so this promises to be an important community conversation with many of the region’s stakeholders and decision makers in attendance. We are also expecting lots of media coverage, including some possible national attention. Be sure to come early to get your seat!

For your enjoyment during the 5 o’clock hour, we will have some terrific student performances. Come hear the Pittsburgh Obama Steel Drum band and the Pittsburgh Dilworth Drummers raise the roof! Children’s activities will be provided by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University’s HearMe project.

Pittsburgh Obama Steel Drums play this summer for a neighborhood street festival.

Pittsburgh Obama Steel Drums play this summer for a neighborhood street festival.

Pittsburgh Dilworth Drummers play for our Rally for Public Education back in February.

Pittsburgh Dilworth Drummers play for our Rally for Public Education back in February.

This event is being hosted by our new coalition, Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh: Action United, One Pittsburgh, PA Interfaith Impact Network, Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, SEIU, and Yinzercation.

Thanks to our co-sponsors, we are able to keep the lecture free and open to the public. Much appreciation to: Carlow Univ. School of Education, Chatham Univ. Department of Education, Duquesne Univ. School of Education, First Unitarian Church Social Justice Endowment, PA State Education Association, Robert Morris Univ. School of Education & Social Sciences, Slippery Rock Univ. College of Education, Temple Sinai, Univ. of Pittsburgh School of Education, and Westminster College Education Department.

If you haven’t yet RSVPed, please head over to our Facebook event page where you can let us know you are coming. You can also invite your friends and help spread the word. See you Monday!

From AYP to SPP

Move over Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). Time to make room for the School Performance Profile (SPP). Pennsylvania has just been granted its waiver to the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, which had required that all students in the country be proficient in reading and math by next year. But don’t start celebrating just yet.

When it became apparent that AYP goals were pie in the sky, states started lining up to get waivers. It took Pennsylvania longer than most others to get in line (41 others were ahead of us). But that’s only because then-Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis was concerned that a waiver would force the state to change the way it performs standardized testing and that any new federal laws could make the state change its testing again. Once it became clear there would be no new federal legislation, Pennsylvania applied for the waiver, which comes with plenty of strings attached. [See “Waiver no Favor”]

What we will get now is a School Performance Profile, based on student test participation rates, graduation and attendance rates, and two measures of progress towards closing achievement gaps. [Post-Gazette, 8-21-13] That means that three out of the four “annual measurable objectives” in the profile will be based on student testing. In other words, SPP threatens to simply replace the old high-stakes-test-crazy system with a new one. Or as our Shippensburg grassroots colleague Susan Spicka aptly put it: “It is absurd that our state government is focusing so much time, energy and money ensuring that all children have an equal opportunity to be evaluated when it is clear that all children do not have an equal opportunity to learn.” [The Sentinel, 8-22-13]

And that’s exactly the problem. This new SPP system will label schools without providing any real help for struggling students. If a school receives federal Title I money (based on its proportion of poor students), it will be labeled “priority,” “focus,” or “reward.” All other schools will get a profile score. It’s not clear if that score will be a number or letter grade (A – F), which is very trendy right now among corporate-style-reformers who support vouchers, charter-expansion, school closure, and other privatization efforts. Either way, the bottom line is these rating systems do not appear to work and are definitely subject to cheating.

In an analysis of Indiana’s school grading system, sociologist Matthew Di Carlo found an extremely high correlation between poverty and a school’s grade. Almost 85% of low-poverty schools earned and A or B, and almost none got a D or F, while over half of the high-poverty schools earned Ds and Fs. A full 80% of the schools labeled as failing with an F were in the highest poverty quartile. Dr. Di Carlo concluded, “This is not at all surprising. It is baked into this system (and you’ll see roughly the same thing in other states).” [Albert Shanker Institute, 11-1-12]

This summer we learned how these school grading systems encourage adults to cheat. Have you heard of “Campbell’s Law”? Dr. Donald Campbell was a social scientist who famously theorized, “The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

That is exactly what happens with high-stakes-testing and its application to school grading. Earlier this month Florida’s state superintendent, Tony Bennett, was forced to resign after reporters discovered that he had changed accountability measures to lift the grades of several schools back in Indiana when he was the elected public school leader of that state. In one case, he helped change a C to an A grade for a charter school run by and named after one of his campaign donors. [Politico, 8-1-13] See the distortion and corruption of Campbell’s Law?

And even when school grading systems aren’t corrupted, they still have the effect of reinforcing inequality. Next door in New Jersey, forty-five parent groups and civil rights groups petitioned U.S. Secretary Duncan last year to stop the waiver process that was imposing the priority-focus-reward labeling system in that state. Those groups found that the system targeted the poorest schools with the highest percentage of African American and Latino students with mandated interventions, including possible closure or conversion to charter schools. The coalition noted that the 122 “reward” schools identified by the state, which were all to receive financial bonuses, were all located in the wealthiest districts. They concluded, “The blatant economic and racial inequity built into this classification system harks back to the days when such segregation and inequity were policy objectives for our State.” [Save Our Schools NJ, 10-15-12]

It appears that Pennsylvania may sidestep this issue by using two separate systems here: applying the SPP score to all schools, and the priority-focus-reward labels only to Title I schools. But without actual assistance for struggling students and districts, all of these scores and labels are meaningless. In fact, they are harmful, since they tend to have major consequences – from stigmatizing schools (who wants to send their kids to an “F-rated” school?), to further narrowing the curriculum (since the high-stakes-tests cover only the basics, subjects like art, music, and world languages get fewer and fewer resources), to the threat of closure.

It’s almost a cruel joke to hear Gov. Corbett announce, “This waiver allows Pennsylvania to focus on improving schools by directing resources to areas that help students academically succeed.” [Post-Gazette, 8-21-13] Oh really? What resources would those be? Our schools are still missing $2.3 BILLION in cuts since 2011. [See “Budget Failure”] This year, when the legislature approved a miniscule increase over last year’s budget, it allowed select legislators to hand out extra funds to 21 of their favorite school districts – with no basis at all in directing resources to helping real students in need. [Lancaster Online, 7-21-13]

Under the new SPP labeling system, Gov. Corbett’s administration promises interventions, “focusing on having principals who are strong leaders; ensuring effective teachers; providing additional time for student learning and teacher collaboration; and strengthening instructional programs.” The state will also “provide academic recovery liaisons to help priority schools.” [Post-Gazette, 8-21-13] Hello, what? Where is the money to hire back our teachers, school counselors, nurses, and librarians? How about some funding for our after-school tutoring programs we had to cut? And early childhood education? Maybe SPP should stand for Stupid Public Policy.

If we are serious about offering interventions and supports to struggling schools, we have to be talking about wrap-around services that address trenchant disparities: we need community healthcare in the buildings, childcare, adult job and literacy training, family crisis services. We need to make sure communities have a good public school to send their children to and that we aren’t creating school deserts. We need authentic parent engagement. And we need to make schools enriching, welcoming places that students want to be in with full art programs and a wide range of activities.

I worry that SPP will just replace AYP: with more high-stakes-testing, more labeling-and-punishing schools, more blaming teachers, and still no results for our kids.

The Real Bloodbath

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for our public schools, and they’re not even in session. In the heat of the summer Pittsburgh schools – and our teachers – have come under attack.

First, in an appalling public statement on the residency requirement for city police officers, the Fraternal Order of Police president, Sgt. Mike LaPorte, called our schools “bloodbaths” and suggested that Pittsburgh officers want to flee to the suburbs for their children’s education. [Post-Gazette, 7-8-13] It seems to me that Sgt. LaPorte has not actually spent much time around our city schools lately. His comment insults Pittsburgh families, the overwhelming majority of whom (80%) send their children to our public schools.

Do our schools still have problems? Absolutely. But bloodbaths? Absolutely not. Sgt. LaPorte should be encouraging his officers to be a part of the solution building Pittsburgh’s future, rather than taking pot-shots at our public schools in an attempt to justify his policy position on residency requirements. It’s not only factually wrong, but it strikes me as unethical, and entirely unproductive, for one of our community leaders and public servants to bash public education. Strong schools make strong communities – and isn’t that what our police force is working for, too?

In a response to LaPorte’s comment, Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers president Nina Esposito-Visgitis wrote an op-ed piece explaining the many ways in which our public schools are anything but a bloodbath. For example: “More than 70 percent of Pittsburgh’s teachers hold advanced graduate degrees.” That’s far more than the national average of 52 percent for public school teachers and 38 percent for private- and charter-school teachers. [Post-Gazette, 7-24-13] Did you know that two Pittsburgh public high schools (Allderdice and CAPA) were rated in the top 20 Pennsylvania high schools this year and ranked among the best in the country by U.S. News and World Report?

In the wake of the FOP bashing, Jake Haulk, president of the right-leaning Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, wrote an opinion piece claiming that the Pittsburgh Promise program is a failure. [Tribune-Review, 7-20-13] Citing declining enrollment in city schools as his proof, he neglected to note that this has largely been due to the decline in the student-age population in Pittsburgh (not a lack of faith in its schools). Pittsburgh schools have actually seen a leveling off of population decline, and in fact, as Pittsburgh Promise executive director Saleem Ghubril pointed out in a response piece, our Kindergarten enrollment has been up the last two years. [Tribune-Review, 7-24-13]

More troubling, though perhaps not surprising, was Dr. Haulk’s suggestion that we “redirect some of the vast sums of taxpayer dollars and Promise money to real education reform.” By which he means, “create scholarships for elementary and secondary students to allow them to opt out of Pittsburgh schools and enroll in private or parochial schools.” This is, of course, the voucher system that Gov. Corbett has tried to impose since coming into office, and which remains wildly unpopular with voters (not to mention unconstitutional since we have that tricky little clause in the Pennsylvania constitution forbidding taxpayer money from being used for religious schools).

The bottom line that Dr. Haulk seems to want to ignore is that voucher and tax credit schemes don’t actually work for students. Most of the money goes to families who are already enrolled in private schools – in other words, it does not “rescue” kids from “bad” schools. There is no evidence that these programs improve student performance. (And our existing tax credit programs were created with no accountability so we have no way of knowing how students might be doing in them.) What vouchers and tax credits do succeed in doing is draining desperately needed revenues from the state right at the time our public schools are missing $2.4 billion in budget cuts.

Private schools do not, cannot, and will not serve all our kids. Mr. Ghubril stated it beautifully: while acknowledging that our “safety net [of public education] has many holes in it,” he said that, “until [Haulk] offers a better safety net that is required to educate all children, I will spend the rest of my days, with a needle and thread, sewing as many of the holes as possible.” And then he invited “all good-hearted people to pick up their needles and sew.” Amen to that.

Now if only we could get Jack Kelly, columnist over at the Post-Gazette, to listen. This past weekend he wrote a column about home schooling that served as a thinly veiled excuse to attack teachers and their unions. His piece was full of misused statistics, apples-and-oranges comparisons, and unsupported claims to draw conclusions that will actually hurt kids. He ends by saying, “Public schools fail mostly because they’re run for the benefit of administrators and teachers … As long as we have teachers unions, public schools will stink. But if we relax rules and de-emphasize credentials, they wouldn’t stink as much.” [Post-Gazette, 7-21-13]

Really? Less credentialed, meaning less qualified, teachers are going to help our students? How is that supposed to happen? Mr. Kelly apparently thinks that our teachers have too many master’s degrees. Or maybe too many Ph.D.’s? Or is too much experience the problem?

And he says our public schools stink. Wow. Maybe he needs to go on a tour with Dr. Haulk and Sgt. LaPorte. I’m sure we could arrange one. Frankly, I’m getting sick of the tired old line that teachers only care about themselves and their contracts. As the Facebook meme going around this summer says: “I went into teaching for the money, said no teacher ever.” Improving public schools does not happen by vilifying our public school teachers.

Now, if the nastiness from Kelly, Haulk, and LaPorte weren’t enough, this week we learned that Pittsburgh has just approved 36 new furloughs – on top of the 280 last year – and returned 32 educators to furlough status (these were staff who had been laid off and then brought back for temporary positions). [Post-Gazette, 7-25-13] That means our kids will be missing 68 educators next month when they return to their schools. All of those furloughed are teachers and professionals such as early intervention specialists working in schools (not central administration). The majority are paraprofessionals who work right in the classroom with students, so this will have a direct and immediate negative impact on children.

And some of the kids who will be hurt the most are the very ones we should be investing the most in: because the district is losing over $2 million due to federal sequestration cuts, it is closing six early childhood classrooms. Yes six entire pre-K classrooms.

Budget cuts. Furloughs. Closed classrooms. Name calling. Attacks on teachers. Maybe Sgt. LaPorte was right – there is a bloodbath in public education. Just not the kind he’s thinking about. And it’s going to be full of the blood of our children unless we collectively stand up and fight back.

—————-

Wednesday, July 31st
Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh, Action Planning Meeting
6:30-8PM
PFT Building, 10 19th St., Southside

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.