Around here, the acronym PPS usually means “Pittsburgh Public Schools,” but now it might mean “Planning a Privatization Scheme.” The district has hired two consulting companies to help it craft an education plan that addresses equity issues for students and its looming financial crisis. But it turns out those two companies – Bellwether and FSG – support privatization of public schools. Hello? Who invited them to the party?
Actually, the PPS administration did, and then received approval from the Pittsburgh school board to pay them $2.4 million for their advice. The money is coming from local foundations as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has been pouring money into teacher evaluation systems across the country, including the one here in our city. In fact, the funders made sure that the contract stipulates, “A commitment that on-going current programs, for example but not limited to … Empowering Effective Teachers, will continue to be implemented while the planning process is in progress.” [PPS Board January 2013 Legislative Session]
Remember, there is nothing wrong with teacher evaluation per se. However, the current national obsession with evaluation starts with the faulty assumptions that we have a crisis of bad teaching in our schools (while ignoring the very real crises of poverty, budget cuts, equity, and more); that we must weed out “low performing” teachers; and that we can identify “bad” teachers based on the test scores of their students. [For more on the serious problems of this obsession, please see “The VAM Sham”.]
But concerns with the teacher evaluation system aside, the Pittsburgh school board voted to approve the contract with FSG (with Bellwether as a subcontractor) without asking a single question about the philosophy of these two companies. Only board members Mr. Mark Brentley and Dr. Regina Holley voted “no” after inquiring if there weren’t local organizations that could do this consulting work, keeping all those dollars in the regional economy (an important point). But what’s worse than sending those dollars out of state, is that we will be spending $2.4 million on a plan formulated by people who actually believe we ought to be handing our public schools over to private companies.
Let’s start with Bellwether Education Partners. Mary K. Wells, a co-founder and managing partner at Bellwether, told the Post-Gazette that the group does not necessarily advocate charterizing public schools. “We’re for high-performing schools that serve all kids really well. I think we’re quite agnostic around whether that is the traditional public school setting or the charter school setting.” [Post-Gazette, 2-19-13] Yet Bellwether’s small group of five partners includes Andy Smarick, who just published a new book, The Urban School District of the Future, that “argues that the traditional urban school district is irreparably broken, and that … it must be replaced.” Smarick, who helped start a charter school in Annapolis, Maryland, believes that, “Vastly better results can be realized through the creation of a new type of organization that properly manages a city’s portfolio of schools using the revolutionary principles of chartering.” [Bellwether: Can Chartering Replace the Urban District]
Seriously? This is their starting point. That Pittsburgh’s schools are beyond hope and our only way out is to hand them over to charter operators. Education historian Diane Ravitch responded to the premise of Smarick’s book saying, “Suffice it to say that his arguments begin with the assumption that the schools and the system are broken, whereas I have concluded that the schools are struggling to educate children who have been harmed by poverty and societal neglect. … If poverty is the cause of low academic performance, as it appears to be on every standardized test and in every nation, then we might see better results by reducing poverty than by opening charter schools.” She points out that Smarick, like most corporate-style “reformers” has spent no time as an educator. Ravitch continues:
Smarick doesn’t like public education. He likes privately managed charter schools getting public money. Given his limited experience, I wonder whether he has ever spent any time in good urban public schools. I doubt it. Nothing that I have seen from his pen acknowledges that charters experience failure on the same scale as public schools. Nothing acknowledges that urban charters get no different results from public schools unless they somehow manage to minimize the number of students with disabilities and students who are English language learners and to exclude the students with behavioral and academic problems. If this is the case, then what exactly would be accomplished by dismantling urban public education and handing it over to entrepreneurs? [DianeRavitch, 10-23-12]
Back in September, Diane Ravtich also went head to head with another Bellwether partner, Andrew Rotherham, on Diane Rehm’s national public radio show. Rotherman and two other conservatives blamed unions for all problems in schools and claimed that even in “right-to-work” states (which severely curtail unions), unions are too powerful. While Ravitch explained why the Chicago public teachers were striking to defend the education of their students, Rotherman was publicly rooting for the Chicago mayor to defeat the union. [DianeRavitch, 9-12-12]
These are the people who founded Bellwether. They were management consultants and investors (Ms. Wells herself worked at Bain & Company) and they have MBAs, not education credentials. Bellwether’s own client list reads like a who’s-who of charter schools and corporate reformers. So I’m not particularly inclined to take their word for it when they tell us that they are “agnostic” as to whether charter schools are the path of Pittsburgh’s future.
Brad Bernatek, the FSG director working with the Pittsburgh public schools, also claims that his company is “fairly agnostic” on privatization. [Post-Gazette, 2-19-13] But the FSG website makes it very clear that they believe in school choice – often code for charters, vouchers, and tax credit programs in the corporate “reform” lexicon – saying that their expertise is in “Unleashing the potential of technology and ensuring that a range of high-quality school options exist to meet the needs of all students.” In the fall, Bernatek authored a report on “blended learning” as the future of education, looking at how schools – especially charter schools – are combining cyber learning with traditional classrooms. [Blended Learning in Practice: Case Studies from Leading Schools]
Last week the district asked me to meet with Mr. Bernatek to share my vision for the future of Pittsburgh’s public schools. I talked about the things our grassroots movement has been fighting for: art, music, library, science, history, and languages for all our students. Our teachers back in the classroom and smaller class sizes. A restoration of our tutoring programs, nurses and social workers in every school, parent engagement specialists, and community-based wrap-around services that address poverty and whole neighborhood needs. I want to see our district and our school board take a public stand and boldly insist that state legislators deliver adequate, equitable, and sustainable funding for all our students. And I want them to start talking about public education as a public good that must be cherished and promoted.
But I don’t see any of our priorities reflected in the process FSG/Bellwether will be using to work with Pittsburgh public schools. They have established an advisory group that will split into six subcommittees to look at: “finance and budget analysis; student outcomes and effectiveness; organization and human capital; information technology and operations; stakeholder engagement and communication; and the types of available schools and the external landscape.” [Post-Gazette, 2-19-13]
Where is a rich curriculum for our kids? Where are teachers? The only subcommittee that even mentions students is “student outcomes and effectiveness,” which sounds like more emphasis on the testing, evaluation, and measurement that’s turning our children into data points and is not about real learning. When I told Bernatek that we want an end to the punitive culture of high-stakes-testing, he admitted to me, in the interest of full disclosure (for which I give him credit), that when he worked for the Seattle school district as director of research, evaluation, and testing he helped to select the very test that teachers there are now refusing to administer to their students. (For more on that test and the Seattle opt-out movement that is spreading like wildfire, please see the series of posts under our Opt-Out Movement category.)
Does all this mean Bernatek and his team will recommend more testing, charterizing our public schools, or blended cyber-learning as the answer to Pittsburgh’s challenges? I don’t know. But I do know that the district and school board ought to have asked a lot more questions before hiring these two companies. This information is all available on the web (many thanks to Yinzercator Pam Harbin for the internet sleuthing for this story). Which leads me to suspect that the district knew full well just who they were dealing with. And that raises a lot more questions. Is PPS really Planning a Privatization Scheme?