Earlier this month, the Thomas Fordham Institute (America's leading promoters of school privatization) released the capstone to a series entitled Redefining the School District by Nelson Smith. It's worth a look to better understand where these folks are coming from. (Spoiler alert-- Smith is the former head of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and currently advises the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, so guess where this train is headed.)
The first two portions of the series are location-specific (Tennessee and Michigan), but the third installment steps back for a wider view of redefining school districts in America, and that's the one I'm going to skim for you today, but this is still a long haul. Fasten your seatbelt and grab a snack.
Opening Shots from Petrilli
Amber Northern and Mike Petrilli pen the introduction to the report, setting up the premise for all that follows.
First, the failure of turnarounds so far. The feds spent $5.7 billion-with-a-B on School Improvement Grants, and it didn't move the needle a bit. Why? Petrilli and Northern cite an unnamed study from may of 2015 that showed that state officials simply lack the expertise to do it.
So schools need to be turned around, but the states don't know how. To whom, I wonder, can we turn to get this job done?
There are other problems, as suggested by these oddly-juxtaposed sentences:
Even when we stumble upon promising strategies, the old familiar barriers make implementation difficult. In 2012, for example, the Center on Education Policy found that a majority of state officials believed that replacing the principal or staff of low-performing schools was a key element in improving student achievement there.
I agree-- the idea that mass firings will create excellence is an old familiar barrier to improving schools. Oh. Never mind. Reading on, I see that they're setting up the point that silly old unions and regulations keep bold innovators from firing their way to excellence.
So we're going to look at Recovery School District-style governance changes, because that's a system that cuts through government regulations to give charter privateers the chance to do whatever the hell they want, which will advance the cause of public education as surely as the advent of fast food franchises have further the cause of public health and nutrition.
So let's begin.
Some of the same background. What will our focus be?
All of these involve the reshuffling of governance authority between state and local players. While touching lightly on all, this paper focuses mainly on state reforms that take over schools, rather than districts, and that assume “LEA” functions for those schools—the mundane routines of oversight, administration, and finance that a local education agency (a.k.a. a conventional school district) ordinarily performs.
Nicely done. Although these papers are talking pretty directly and exclusively about the process of handing public schools over to private corporate interests, we're never going to say those words. Notice here that it's "state reforms" that take over the schools. I respect the precise language fig leaf even as I'm unimpressed by what it covers up.
Framing the Choice
Smith informs us that CAP found "compelling evidence" that turnarounds happens when districts get uber-aggressive about it. No, he's not going to tell us where that evidence is, or whether it would be compelling to people who don't already assume the conclusion.
His repeated point here is that local districts just won't scorch enough earth. It's almost as if they considered community concerns and interests and were not willing to do whatever it takes to get test scores up (because, don't forget, in every instance that we're talking about "success" and "achievement," all we're really talking about is scores on a single not-very-good standardized test).
But the turnaround-district concept is not fundamentally about resources; it’s about establishing and then earnestly pushing toward radically higher expectations for schools that have been written off as failures.
Put that notion beside this quote from Andre Perry:
Our goal is not to improve a school in spite of the community. Our goal is to improve a community using schools.
Throughout his work, Smith rarely mentions community except as an agent of resistance. He certainly doesn't admit that community factors like poverty get in the way of school excellence. And on his list of status quo items that get in the way of excellent turnarounding, he includes "local control" as if allowing people to have a say in running their own community schools is just a foolish roadblock on the road to awesomeness. Nor does he have a real outcome on the table-- just better test scores, which are a proxy for... something. The view of schools as community's shared resources is completely absent from his view.
This the choice he sees:
The real comparison is not between one kind of bracing rescue effort and another. It’s between taking the risk of major, disruptive change and settling for the kind of timid, safe steps that leave thousands of kids in failing schools, desperately awaiting help.
So when he mentioned schools "written off as failures" earlier, maybe he meant that he was the one doing the writing. At any rate, our choice is clear-- we must burn the village to save it, and people who want to put out the torches are just obstacles to be pushed aside.
How Are Current Turnaround Districts Doing?
Smith wants to revisit the three existing takeover districts (my word, never his) and show how great they are doing. These are all discussions that have been had many, many times, and I'm not going to revisit them here in any depth.
Smith does not try to blow nothing but smoke here. He's pretty clear and direct, for instance, in acknowledging that NOLA RSD school are still at the bottom of the Louisiana barrel, though he also talks about the super-duper impressive gains that RSD schools have made. He claims success by saying that the RSD has changed the trajectory of these schools and pointed them in the right direction.
His treatment of the individual districts highlights another rhetorical feature of this paper-- public schools have flaws which are proof that they are failing, abandoned, written off, and otherwise the sort of hopeless institutions in which we don't want students to be trapped. But while charter school flaws are acknowledged, these are not proof that either the charters or the entire takeover model is failing or fundamentally flawed-- it's just a few bugs to be worked out.
Every public school failure is proof that they've reached the end of the road, while charter failures are just challenges to be met on the road to awesome.
Smith's examination of Tennessee's ASD provides one my favorite examples of How To Avoid The T Word. Noting that most of the bottom 5% schools are in Memphis, Smith says that ecah year "the ASD selects a few more of them for inclusion in its portfolio." Doesn't inclusion in a portfolio sound so much nicer than being taken over. It has the added advantage of being language that the hedge fundy backers of the charter chains can understand.
The Tennessee section does run through many of the real issues of Tennessee (for instance, the rules change to allow ASD schools to ship in students from outside the area they're supposed to serve). It also mentions in passing one of the big challenges they face-- RttT money is going to run out soon. And Smith wraps up by saying that the ASD parents poll as being mostly satisfied, which is unsurprising given A) why would unsatisfied parents still be in ASD schools and B) parents are universally satisfied with their schools. If Smith's polling data is a good measure of success, then the vast majority of public schools are successes and we can stop all this nonsense. But of course the reformster narrative is that public school parents are satisfied only because their schools lie to them and they don't know any better.
By the time Smith wheels through Michigan and its "precipitous drop" in enrollment after year one, now happily turned around, or its challenging "external environment," it finally hits me that the language of this report suggests a prospectus for possible investors and business partners, not a consideration of how the takeover of public schools is affecting the schools, the students, or the communities. And that makes more sense out of the next section.
Prospects on the Horizon
The phrase "emerging markets" doesn't actually appear in the next section, but it might as well. Here, Smith says, are some other states where this sort of takeover approach is being tried, floated, promoted or otherwise looks likely to launch.
Connecticut and Delaware are brought up as "faux districts." The principal issue seems to be that in these states, the local bodies were allowed to retain some control. The schools were not taken over and properly handed off to charter operators or other privatizers. So, close, but not good enough.
So here's what Smith thinks states should be doing as they prepare to hand public education over to private operators.
Concede There's a Problem
Step One in Smith's book is for the state to admit they have a problem they can't solve, and don't listen to those stupid teachers unions.
Governor Cuomo’s proposal to put some of his state’s 178 failing schools into receivership generated plenty of controversy, but no response was more revealing—or damning—than that of the state teachers’ union: “New York doesn’t have failing schools....It does have struggling schools where teachers and parents are working together in different circumstances to cope with deep poverty. Poverty and chronic under-funding by the state are the central issues the governor’s proposal does not address.”
Followed by this--
That’s a prescription for doing nothing.
This is classic Orwellian backwards reformsterism. Here's how it works. When I say, "We have some serious issues here that need to be addressed as part of the business of addressing student achievement," I am being defeatist and claiming that as a victim, nothing can be done. But when you, Mr. Reformy McCharteralot, say, "This public school is unsalvageable and must be scrapped completely," somehow you are not giving up or claiming that there's no solving the problem?
I come into the house and say, "Hey, before we can drive anywhere, I need some help cleaning out the car." You say, "It's not possible. We'd better just sell the car for scrap and buy a new one." Now, which one of us is giving up and saying that the problem can't possibly be solved?
The observation that poverty and chronic under-funding are factors in school success are not "a prescription for doing nothing." That's like saying, "The doctor says I don't have enough iron in my diet and I need this medicine. So yeah, he totally thinks I should do nothing."
Don't Paint by Numbers
Smith acknowledges that one size does not fit all. For instance, rural areas such as those in Georgia, do not lend themselves to a choicey system (people tend to choose the school that's not thirty miles away). As always, this is not a reason to question if the takeover model is a good idea. It's just a call to get creative with solutions. Mind you, it's not that I don't love me some creative solutions-- but why is that not a legitimate alternative to takeover for public schools?
Call Your Lawyer
You might want to check to make sure that handing over your public schools to private companies isn't a violation of your state constitution.
Be Careful With Eligibility Requirements
I may be reading a little too close here, but this section looks kind of like "Don't make your takeover criteria so rigid that you start chewing up perfectly good charter enterprises along with the public schools."
Define Turned Around & Define the End Game
This is actually a good point. The outcome of your school takeover is supposed to be... what? This continues to be a weak spot in the privatizer battle map, a piece of rhetoric that distinguished them from Common Core pushers. Core fans have a lofty end goal-- we'll be smarterer than the whole wide world. But privatizers' end goal is a privatized education system that will be better because it will be privatized, and that's just inherently better, because reasons.
Hey, I have a thought. Let me repeat Andre Perry's quote from above:
Our goal is not to improve a school in spite of the community. Our goal is to improve a community using schools.
Doesn't that seem like a better goal than High Test Scores and Good ROI?
Don't Include Sucky Charters
Smith says don't take charters over; just put them out of business. For just a second, we kind of agree. But then I'm thinking, one charter closed is another charter's business opportunity-- unless the state gets in the way.
Pay for it from Public Funds
Don't make the program dependent on grant money or philanthropy or one-time state largesse. This of course creates a whole other question-- what if there aren't enough public funds to go around?
Learn from This
Let your state-commandeered takeover district be a shining beacon of How To Do Schools. Remember--we started this in the first place because nobody working in education or operating state bureaucracies-- nobody knows how to make schools better. Once those privateers get in there and show you how it's done, take notes!
Of course, we've had modern era privateer charters and even takeover school districts for a while now, so maybe we could list off all the things they've taught us about How To Run Successful Schools............ . . . . .
Well, we have learned a couple of things. Like running a successful school means spending all the money it really takes. And being careful that you don't accept or keep the Wrong Kinds of Students. Anything else? No?
Next Up: Recommendations for Management
Here are the things you need to do when setting up the management of your new takeover district.
1. Think long term. There will a lot of pressure to get things fixed immediately. Probably because that's how you sold this whole business in the first place (We can't give public schools one more day to work on this. We must fix it RIGHT NOW!) Don't let those expectations push you around. Be patient. Wait. These things take time (except for public schools).
2) Expect course corrections. You'll make mistake. Just keep trying stuff till you get better. Remember, you're not a public school, so you deserve more chances.
3) Create a portfolio. Let lots of different privatizers ride this gravy train.
4) Get the right skills. Hire people who are really good at doing turnaround work, although that may be difficult because right now the number of companies with a proven track record is pretty much none.
5) Understand that race and class matter. No, he's not suddenly acknowledging those terrible "excuses "that public schools use might be worth thinking about. He is acknowledging that when you bring rich white guys to come run schools in poor black communities, the locals might get a little cranky.
From the outset—in framing the legislation, in designing the district, in hiring administrators, in reviewing applications for charter operators—those who will be affected by this change should be part of the process.
Close, but no cigar. Those who will be affected by this change should be in charge of the process.
6) Use the district to leverage broader improvement. In other words, use school takeovers as a threat.
7) Stress talent. Yeah, forget everything from point five. Smith quotes privateer par excellence Neerav Kingsland: “The RSD has helped facilitate the nation’s first decentralized, non-governmental human capital system—where groups like Teach For America, TNTP, Leading Educators, and Relay Graduate School of Education are the talent engines.”
There are people out there who are just better than everybody else (particularly most of the everbody's who are teachers) and you should recruit them. Smith mentions that the influx of young TFA type talent into New Orleans was great; he does not mention the hundreds of black teachers who were fired to make the space.
8) Give the locals a chance. You know, they might not all suck. Maybe.
9) Focus on neighborhoods. I have no way of knowing if he giggled aloud while typing this.
10) Communicate clearly with the community. Again, is there some place in the reformy world where this has actually happened?
Five General Implications
Smith has five more ideas that run through the paper that he makes explicit at the end. I'm pretty sure I don't see any of these quite the way he does, and since this is my blog, I'll be giving you my perspective.
1) The local district has lost the exclusive franchise. Well, yes-- local taxpayers and voters have in fact been disenfranchised in these takeover school districts, their voices silenced and their ability to vote for representation in school governance stripped from them. Though they do still get to pay all the bills that all these various schools run up, so there's that, I guess.
Smith notes that while states have always been able to take over schools in "extraordinary" circumstances, the definition of such circumstances has widened "to include a school’s chronic failure to educate its pupils." Which, again, simply means lots of low test scores. But the playbook remains the same-- starve the school of financial resources, or simply push at the low test scores that inevitably come in any high poverty community school, and you can declare a crisis and throw out local control. Ka-ching.
2) Power shift at the state level. This is an interesting point and deserving of its own study. Basically, the implication is that under a state takeover plan, he who controls the state's "school district" controls access to a ton of money and fat juicy contracts, which means that suddenly being an educational bureaucrat is getting to be a lot more fun. Plus the state "school district" needs its own administrative and contract-granting super-structure, so states are growing new offices. Smith and I may not see the same implications here, but I think we agree that all sorts of power lines are shifting in state capitals.
3) A boost for the portfolio concept. As noted, a diverse portfolio makes for a better investment and school privatization plan.
4) The federal question mark. This is a long-running reformster problem. They loved federal involvement when it helped break open the piggy bank (e.g. federal support and push for Common Core) but not so much when the feds start making a lot of rules about how the game can be played. Only the feds had a hammer big enough to crack open the public education sector, but privatizers really don't want the feds to stick around after the smashing is done. So there are many "questions" about the federal role, in the sense that you and the traffic cop that just pulled you over may have "questions" about whether you violated any law or not.
5) We need to know more. There are many aspects of takeover schools and the results thereof for which we don't have answers. Or, we have answers, but privatizers don't like the answers very much. But remember-- when these kinds of questions come up in a public school, that's proof of failure, but when they come up in privatized schools, it's just a challenge that we must patiently learn and grow from.
My cranky demeanor might suggest that I am simply trying to blow holes in this report without even considering what it has to say, but I am paying attention, and there are specific reasons that I think the takeover school model is a bad idea.
1) The bizarre double standard. Privatized schools that are
struggling need resources, time, patience, and the chance to try new
approaches. Public schools that are struggling need to be taken over,
closed, privatized, wiped out. This is not what you do when you're trying to find the best way and understand what is going on-- this is what you do when you've already decided that you want to support privatization and crush public schools.
2) The dishonesty. The repeated use of language meant to soften or hide what we're really talking about is a bad sign. It indicates a program that's unwilling to honestly stand up and live or die on its own merits. It indicates people who know they're proposing a bad idea, but are trying to somehow slip it by.
3) The narrowing of education. Without even discussing the choice, this report summarily reduces the meaning of a quality education to good test scores on a bad standardized test. That is inexcusable and unsupportable.
4) The bludgeoning of democracy. Takeover school districts involve
the end of any democratic process for local taxpayers and voters. For
that very reason, takeover school districts target schools that serve
mainly poor, brown, or black citizens. These communities have the
predictable low test scores and poor financial support that makes it
easy for bureaucrats to holler, "Failing school!" and they lack the kind
of political connections that have kept reformsters from trying to
"reform" any rich, white districts.
Just as schools
can and should be tools for strengthening and improving communities
(want me to bust out that Andre Perry quote again?), schools are being
used as tools to bust communities apart. Take away the local voice.
Spread the students around the city, away from the community. This is
backwards, and this is wrong.