Sunday, April 30, 2017

Did FCC Just Damage School Internet

In the wonky alphabet soup depths of policy, this thing happened in April-- the FCC decided to uncap BDS pricing, because free market competition.

Wires competing for space on free market pole

Business Data Services refers to the kind of bulk internet access sold by providers like Verizon and ATT to business and other institutional buyers. Like small businesses or hospitals or libraries or schools.

And while there is no limit on what providers can charge you for home internet, the BDS sector has always been highly regulated, based on the argument that schools and libraries and mom-and-pop businesses should not be priced out of the market.

The end of the cap allows service providers to charge whatever they think the market can bear (or even employ the time-honored practice of jacking up prices in order to drive away customers you don't want to serve). The cap removal is conditional-- it can only happen in counties where there is competition. Competition in this case is defined as "any other isp provider within a half mile of fifty percent of the buildings being served." Estimates are that about a third of the coountry will consequently stay under the old cap.

Some Democrats are not happy about this move by the FCC:

Many politicians have talked in recent months "about protecting our nation's small businesses -- the backbone of the American economy," said Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat. "Yet it is these very businesses -- the mom-and-pop hardware store, the family-owned wireless provider, and the small rural hospital, that just drew the short straw."

Instead of looking out for "millions of little guys," the Republican majority at the FCC has sided with the interests of huge telecom providers, she added. Clyburn predicted "immediate price hikes," especially in rural areas.

"Just where does the buck stop? At the wallets of every American consumer," she said.

Can you guess who thinks this is a good idea?

"Price regulation—that is, the government setting the rates, terms, and conditions for special access services—is seductive," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a former Verizon lawyer, said. "Who can possibly resist the promise of forcing prices lower right now? But in reality, price regulation threatens competition and investment."


My emphasis. Yup. Just in case you missed that one in the flurry-ish wave of appointments, Trump put a former Verizon counsel in charge of the FCC. But before you get too mad(der) at Trump, note that one reason you may have missed this appointment is because Pai left Verizon in 2003, went to work at the Department of Justice for a few years, and then started working at the FCC in 2007. In 2011, Obama nominated him for the Republican commissioner spot on the FCC and the Senate approved him unanimously. So while Pai keeps getting "Trump-appointed" appended to his name, all Trump did this time was just continue a bipartisan institutional process that has been going on for a while. Now we have Pai, spearheading the attack on net neutrality and this BPS thing.

Will this ultimately make internet access more expensive for your school? Probably. Then again, the intense free market competition may drive your costs relentlessly down (if you are among the 24% of BDS customers in a two-server market). Because, see, price competition really kicks in when providers are free to charge more. Because... wait-- are we saying that because they weren't free to charge more before, they couldn't compete by charging less? I could swear that's not how the free market is actually supposed to work.


ICYMI: Wrapping Up April Edition (4/30)

Where did that month go? Here are some reads from last week. As always, I ask you to please amplify what speaks to you. "I wish I could write like that person," is what I often hear, and I feel you, but anybody and everybody can tweet, facebook, email and otherwise amplify those voices-- and if you don't push a writer's work out into the world, it doesn't matter if she wrote it. 

Deescalating School Reform Wars

John Thompson has been tireless in trying to build bridges in the school reform debates, and he continues that work with a thoughtful review of Rick Hess's new book.

Eight Questions About School Vouchers

That Betsy DeVos won't be able to answer (or would rather not)

The Untold History of Charter Schools

The "if you're only going to read one post on this list" post for the week. Like me, you probably have absorbed the Albert-Shanker-started-charters story. Rachel Cohen has done some actual research, and we're all a little smarter because of it.

When Anxiety Rules

A recently-minted NY teacher talks about what it's like to go through the EdTPA process (spoiler alert: not good).

Common Enemy

Jennifer Berkshire returns from her trip to Ohio with some serious insights about school reform in Trumplandia.

Quirk in PA Charter Law

Why are students with certain special needs the geese that lay the golden eggs in Pennsylvania's charter law? Here's a good explanation.

School Choice Profits on the Taxpayer's Dime

Carol Burris lays out the facts for Arizona on how their charter industry really works.

Desperately Searching for the Merit Pay Fairy

Jersey Jazzman continues his search for the fabled fairy of magical merit pay (spoiler alert: he fails again).

4th Best High School in New York Doesn't Exist

Yeah, about that US News great schools list...

"I Found a Jewel for You"

Nobody observes the world of littles like Teacher Tom.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Lift Your Head

In my capacity as Head Stage Manager Guy at my school, I have spent my day on duty for a concert sponsored by a local church. It makes for a long day, but the crowd is always pleasant and the featured band this year is one my kids used to listen to growing up (Audio Adrenaline, for you people both of faith and also of a certain age, though like most decades-old bands, they are now essentially a ghost band made of all-replaced parts).

At any rate, during set-up this afternoon, I ran into a former student I haven't seen in years. I'm going to call him Bob.

I had Bob as a freshman and as a junior. Bob had some real strengths as a reader and a writer, but a low level of achievement. Some days he was a real pleasure to have around-- outgoing and genial. Other days he arrived at school with a great deal anger stuffed inside. He could be that kid who tries to teach you a lesson by figuratively punching himself in the face over and over. And he would periodically disappear for many days at a time. Big on drama, low on responsibility. Occasionally really cruel and thoughtless, but with occasional flashes of real kindness and decency. Still, most days he flopped into his seat like a lanky pile of loosely associated parts, smiling at things like the sheer hilarity of me asking him to try at whatever we were doing.

As a freshman, Bob was an "at-risk" student with no real support system at home (what at my school we sometimes call "better off raised by wolves") and group of friends who shared an interest in better living through pharmaceuticals. As a junior, he was circling the drain, hard to reach and with no effs left to give. Before the end of the year, he dropped out.

That was a few years ago. Today, he approached me and stuck out his hand to say hi. I asked him how he was doing, what he was up to. In the intervening years, he has earned a GED and gone to tech school to become certified as a welder. Now he is considering leaving the area for work or joining the armed services. He says if he does that he'll use the time to leave the area and get a good start elsewhere he comes. "I've seen too many guys come back here and screw it all up," he says.

I've heard versions of this story a thousand thousand times; so has any teacher who's been at the work for more than five years. It is the umpty gazillionth piece of proof that just because a student doesn't march right through twelve years of school and get the good grades and ace the swell tests and show the correct behaviors-- it doesn't mean that young human is doomed.

You know all the stories. Kid takes six years to finish high school and one day a light bulb goes on and she says, "I'm going to make my life different than this." Or the other stories. Honor student blows up his marriage ten years later by getting caught in a motel room trading sex for drugs with a minor. And THEN gets his act together and gets into a healthy marriage with beautiful children. My director of special ed tells the story of a student with special needs who could barely pass, well, anything, but declared her intention to become a nurse and all her special ed teachers tried to gently steer her away from it and now, today, she is a By God Nurse. My director of special ed tells that story and says, "Now I never say 'never'."

These are the stories I think of when some government bureaucrat announces that we should be able to look at a child and declare definitively whether that child is on the correct direct path to College and Career Readyville. Are you nuts? Have you met some actual humans? For anyone to look at a young human and declare, "I know what path you are on " is just nuts. For many, if not most, we reach our destination in our own way, in our own time. Insisting that everyone should reach the same place on the same path in the same way is just... well, dumb.

If you had asked me years ago if I would bet on Bob, I would have balked. He had tools, but not many, and he seemed determined to trash them. And yet there he was, standing before me like a grown-ass man with his act pretty much together, confident and determined.

To imagine that we can see to the very core of another person is startling hubris. To declare that someone is certainly doomed, that their problems are inescapable solid-state fundamentals of who they are, or that we can prescribe for them what they need or have or lack-- that's just a failure to understand what it means to be human.

I've seen the same line on several t-shirts tonight. It seems like an appropriate to this string of thoughts, even with the folksy non-standard English:

Lift your head. It ain't over yet.

To give a student a test, or to sum up their status in school, to tell them, in effect, just put your head down, because it's over for you-- I can't think of a greater crime to commit against the young humans in our charge. Ignore the test. Skip the test. Forget the pronouncements about college and career readiness.

Lift your head.

Choice and Guarantees

You are visiting friends, and at suppertime, they give you two options. "We can go to Restaurant A," they say, "and there will be only one choice on the menu, but I can guarantee you that it will be awesome. Or we can go to Restaurant B where there will be plenty of choices, but it's entirely possible they will all be pretty lousy."

Which restaurant would you select?

Some reformy choice advocates insist that Restaurant B is the better option. These choicers insist that what parents want is choice. I think not. I think what parents (and students and neighbors and taxpayers) want is secure knowledge that public tax money s being well-spent, and that when a student walks into a classroom, that student is being met by a well-trained, capable professional educator who is going to meet that child where the child is, and do their best to lift that child up.

Rick Smith, in a recent conversation with Jeff Bryant, makes the point by talking about health care. If I'm sick or, say, my wife is about to give birth, I don't want a bunch of choices of various hospitals and doctors. I want to know that the hospital I go to will be great. And then Bryant used a word that jumped out at me.

When it comes to schools, people want a guarantee.

Not choice. Not a bunch of bad options. They want a guarantee.

Guarantee is a strong word. We often talk about the promise of public education, and that's a nice word, but a promise leaves an awful lot of wiggle room.

But guarantee. That's strong stuff. No matter who you are. No matter where you live. No matter what your child brings to the table. We guarantee we'll provide whatever is needed to do the job.

A guarantee isn't just a promise that I'll do the job right. It is a promise that if I fail, I will make it right.

There is absolutely no question that there are places, districts, schools that have failed to honor their guarantee. I don't want to minimize that for a second. Some school "failures" have been manufactured by rigging the game and cooking the books (looking at you, test-centered "accountability'). Some school failures have been manufactured by deliberately starving public schools. Some school failures have been deliberate choices to deny Those Children their guaranteed education. And some schools have managed to fail all on their own, through some unfortunate combination of bad leadership or terrible management.

Those failures have provided an opening, a business opportunity, for champions of choice. "Instead of a renewed guarantee for the school you already have," is the pitch, "how about a choice of other schools." And many folks have bit on that offer because 1) their old school really has failed to live up to the guarantee and 2) they hear the word "school" (or in some cases, "public school") and they assume that the choice school comes with its own guarantee. But many charter-choice schools come with no guarantee at all. No promise that the school will do its best to provide a great education to every single child, and definitely no promise that if the school fails, the family has an avenue to demand that the school make it right.

So instead of making a promise good, fulfilling the guarantee of a public school, choicers just offer other unguaranteed, buyer beware, good luck with that options. If the school fails a student, well, there's the door. Except, of course, voting with your feet does not make things right.

To me it is one of the central mysteries of the choice argument-- if a school is bad, why would you start to open other schools instead of fixing it?

I know one answer, which is "we tried and it just didn't work" followed, usually, by blaming that failure on unions or teachers or deficit models of how Those People's Families behave. No. If what you tried didn't work, the most likely explanation is that what you tried was a bad idea, implemented by someone who didn't know what the hell they were talking about (see also, test-centered accountability).

The other answer, which generally arrives in more coded language, is "fixing schools would cost money, not make money, and why would we spend money on Those People"?

What do we need in education?

We need to issue a clear, unequivocal guarantee to every parent, every child, every taxpayer, every citizen, that they will have a locally-run school in their community fully funded, well resourced, staffed with quality trained professionals, and well-maintained, and that every child who walks into that school will be met by caring professionals who will meet the child where she is and help guide her toward her best possible future. And if the guarantee is not being met, there will be a means to make things right.

Yes, it would be expensive. And yes, it would be most expensive in communities where there are the fewest local resources which, yes, means that you'd have to spend a bunch of tax dollars on Those People's Children. Yes, a guarantee would require a commitment. A big commitment. A real commitment. And while that may seem hopelessly huge, we have certainly found the will-- and the money-- for everything from walking on the moon to grin ding away for decades of Middle Eastern military adventures.

Choice isn't about replacing the guarantee or honoring the guarantee. Choice is about masking the unhappy truth that our leaders don't have the will to make the guarantee and stand by it. Choice is about masking the unhappy truth that too many of us don't really think Those People's Children deserve any such guarantee (just like poor people don't really deserve health care). Choice is not how we find our way to a Great American Education Guarantee; it is what we do instead.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Is DeVos Misunderstood?

On a certain level, I feel just a smidgen of sympathy of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

There has been a steady drumbeat against her, and she has drawn more negative coverage-- heck, more coverage of any sort-- that any education secretary in memory. Nobody made jokes about Arne Duncan on late night television. And some of it is not entirely fair. When I heard the line about the bears and guns in school come out of her mouth, I suspected it would stick to her like a big rotting albatross, and that has turned out to be true. While it captures her level of disconnect, I'm not sure it's a fair or substantive criticism. And I think folks like the late-night comics who mocked her as stupid are just off-base. DeVos may be many things, but
I don't for one moment imagine that she's a dummy. And as anyone who has even the slightest public profile knows, it's one thing to be criticized for what you actually say and do, but it's really annoyed slammed for things that aren't even accurate. That's a lesson teachers have been learning for at least the last decade as reformers have attacked us for everything from failing to fix students with special needs to turning students into lesbian socialists.

But a week ago, prior to her Ohio visit, DeVos issued a statement that seems meant to adjust public perception of her fledgling bureaucratic career, and it mostly reminded me of all the levels on which I have no sympathy for her at all.

DeVos opens by noting that nowadays, it can be hard to discern the truth. Despite being a member of the truth-impaired Trump administration, she appears to mean this un-ironically. At any rate, she wants to present two facts:

I believe every student should have an equal opportunity to get a great education.

And I believe many of those great educations are, and will continue to be, provided by traditional public schools.

These are not new views for me. You may just never have heard them if you only read about my views in the press.

Of course, when someone enters into a post without any experience that would prepare her for that post, she also enters the post without any previous track record. If DEVos had ever held a single government post or held a single position of responsibility related to public education, we would have known a great deal more about her policy preferences. As it was, because she entered the post eminently unqualified to hold it, journalist, bloggers and educators were reduced to sifting through her statements and behavior in the past. And because the billionaire heiress never really felt the need to explain herself to anyone, we've been reduced to looking at decades-old quotes and deductions based on the actions of the groups she has bankrolled.


So Betsy DeVos does not get to blame the press for pubic perceptions of her views on education.

I intend to visit schools of every type to see firsthand what's working - and what's not - for students across the country.

Well, that's a nice thought. But we're talking about a woman with a huge learning curve, because this is an adult woman with no previous experience at all with public schools-- or, for that matter, with the part of the world where people weren't born rich and didn't marry rich and so have to scramble and work for a living. I am not not NOT suggesting that she is automatically bad or evil because she's rich. I am suggesting that when you make someone who has never left Alaska the governor of Texas, that person will need to do more than just visit a couple of rest stops on the Texas interstate to get ready for the job.

DeVos has already demonstrated the problem with her ill-fated visit to Jefferson Middle School where she found the teachers, somehow, to be in "receive mode." Which is not only an insulting judgment  but an insulting judgment based on meeting the teachers briefly for a tiny part of one day on which those teachers were meeting the freaking Secretary of Education. And-- again-- into what frame of reference could DeVos have put that brief interaction?

DeVos hung more of her policy philosophy on the hook of her visit to Van Wert City Schools-- nice schools and all, but a whole bunch of students in their district chose to go somewhere else, which is fine, because every parent should have the option of school choice, says DeVos.

School choice is pro-parent and pro-student. It isn't anti-public school. 

And let me be clear-- I agree that being pro-charter doesn't have to be the same as being anti-public school. But under current law, it absolutely is. Because no lawmakers have the guts to insist on funding a public-charter system fully, we're left with the two types of schools engaged in a zero-sum death match over crumbs.

But pro-choice and pro-parent? No. School choice is mostly pro-business, pro-entrepreneur. It is only pro-parent if you believe, somehow, that would parents would rather have options instead of assurance of quality. I don't believe that's true. Furthermore, DeVos's construction suggests that parents and children are the only stakeholders in education. That is not true-- but it is a great assumption to push if you also want to push the idea that choice does not need any accountability measures.

In other words, if we conceive of a school as a business with parents its only customers, then we can argue that accountability-by-feet (the ones parents can use to walk away) is the only accountability we need. However, if we assume that schools need to be accountable to all the taxpayers who are paying the bills, then we might start thinking that some sort of accountability to those taxpayers might be called for-- the kind of accountability that frowns on tax dollars going to enrich scam artists and frauds and self-dealing greedhounds and people who just plain don't know what the hell they're doing.

School choice isn't about elevating one type of school over another - it's about trusting parents to choose the best fit for their child.

Nope. School choice is about turning education into a product, a commodity to be sold-- and that means that it's about marketing. And if we know anything about marketing, we know it's about targeting particular business-chosen customers and making them selectively informed about the "best fit." Virtually no business has as its marketing model "We'll just lay out the unvarnished facts and let customers make the best choice" * The only time a business says to a customer, "You know, this other company might be a better fit" is when the business does not want that particular customer.

Put another way, I trust parents just fine, for the most part. But I don't trust them all to have the time and resources to do deep research that will arm them against the tidal wave or marketing lies they will be bombarded with by various edu-flavored businesses. Put yet another way, I trust parents, mostly, to be motivated to make good decisions. I don't trust unregulated edu-busnesses to tell those parents the truth.

DeVos then holds up some Florida choicey programs as a model of excellence, which if nothing else shows once again that DeVos has not done her homework. But her praise of the Miami-Dade system shows, again, where her heart is. She does not praise it for providing excellent education; she praises it for providing lots of choice. This is the greatest danger we face from Choice True Believers-- given the options of a no-choice system that provides a great education for every child, and a super-choicey system that delivers lousy educational results, they would choose the latter because when it comes right down to it, they value choice more than they value education.

DeVos calls public schools the backbone of the system, which is, I suppose, better than calling them the spleen, but not as good as recognizing that they are the education system, and modern choice is just a flock of leeches.

Then DeVos throws in a line straight out of 2010-- "What we will not do, however, is accept the status quo"-- which is a hilarious line because the status quo is, of course, a bunch of public schools being undercut and gutted, strapped to bad standards with the bungee cords of toxic testing, while charter- and voucher-privatizers hold positions of high office that they use to further attack and dismantle public education so that they can sell off the parts. The more typical reformster stance is to rail against schools that haven't existed for decades, but since DeVos has no real frame of reference for public schools, she can cast back even further. DeVos throws out the old saw about public education being stuck in the 19th century which only makes sense if you're someone who has spent no real time in a public school.

Technology! she declares, and you might think that this is, again, because she hasn't been in public schools to see that we actually have them new-fangled computer machines, but it turns out that she has particular tech in mind:

Today, it's possible for every student to learn at their own pace, with responsive technologies advancing them through topics they've already mastered and delving deeper into areas where they're struggling.

So, competency based education, or personalized learning, or computerized training modules for the underclass, or whatever we're calling it this week.

She also thinks it's foolish to assign schools based on where you live, which is another way of saying that's it's foolish to let a community organized, maintain and run its own schools. Having previously failed metaphorical framing by suggesting that education should be a Uber, DeVos now compares schools to banks and video rental stores, neither of which need bricks and mortars any more, and both of which are totally like public education. Also, a bicycle, because a vest has no sleeves.

DeVos frames these ideas as necessary because (again harkening back to the 2010 reformster playbook) we are falling behind our economic competitors in the world, because having students who score better on standardized tests would totally make up for having someone in the White House who keeps discovering that governmenty things are hard.

My mission is to unleash a new era of innovation in education to drive unprecedented achievement.

Sure. Might help if you had any idea what the precedents in actual student achievement were, or what the precedents in public education were so that you could spot the difference between an educational innovation and a new business launch. But hey-- she totally loves public education and she supports it and she doesn't want to replace it-- she just wants it to function in completely new and different ways consistent with how a private edu-business works (at least, she thinks she does, though if you don't know who things work now, it's kind of hard to conceive of something "new"). She has nothing against public schools but "our obligation isn't to any type of school."

No, it all comes back to DeVos's embrace of the most classic reformster line of them all.

It's all about the students. "It's time we put them first."

It's all about the kids. The money and power and union crushing and erasure of local control and silencing of local voices and dismantling of a foundational American institution and the imposition by an unelected official of an ideological stance on an entire nation-- well, all of that stuff is just gravy. It's all about the kids.

As I said-- any shred of sympathy I might have felt for DeVos is pretty much shredded when she starts talking. Is she occasionally criticized unfairly? Yes, I think she is. But is she misunderstood, with her policy goals unfairly maligned and misrepresented? I think not. We have a person in charge of our nation's public education system who does not value that system and would happily preside over its destruction, a dismantling she has worked for her entire adult life and never disavowed.

DeVos may feel that we just aren't seeing and hearing her properly, or she may just be experiencing some frustration because her attempts to control the narrative are being thrown off by, you know, facts and accurate perceptions and people not being dopes. We do see and hear her, and I think we see and hear her pretty clearly and accurately, and she is pretty clearly an enemy of pubic education.






*With, yes, the possible exclusion of Progressive Insurance, which has chosen this approach precisely because it is an approach so unusual and unheard of that it makes the brand stand out from the pack.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

NPE Privatization Tool Kit

The Network for Public Education has created a useful toolkit for spreading the basic information about the school privatization network. 











 
The kit is a series of thirteen pdf files, suitable for creating a two-sided one sheet explainer for some of the central questions of the privatization movement. The sheets are loaded with footnoted facts and not simply rhetorical gnashing of teeth. The thirteen questions addressed are:

Are charter schools truly public schools?

Do charter schools and school vouchers "hurt" public schools?

Do charter schools get better academic results than public schools?

Are charter schools and vouchers a civil rights issue?

Are charter schools "more accountable" than public schools?

Do charter schools profit from educating students?

Do school vouchers help kids in struggling schools?

Are charter schools innovative?

Are online charter schools good options for families?

Do "Education Savings Accounts" lead to better results for families?

Do education tax credit scholarships provide opportunity?

Are tax credit scholarships vouchers by a different name?

Do charter schools and vouchers save money?

There's also a link for downloading all thirteen in one fell swoop, if you are a one fell swoop kind of person.

These are quick, simple, handy tools for getting the word out and educating folks. Fact-based, sourced, and all on one piece of paper, these are just the thing to leave in the lounge or hand to people when you really want them to understand how privatization is hurting public education, but you just don't have the words.




Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Arne Duncan's Newe$t Gig

Seems safe to say that Arne Duncan is far busier in his post-government life than he ever was a Secretary of Education. His latest gig is working with "mission-aligned private capital"at something called the Rise Fund.

"I can't believe it either. People just keep throwing money at me."

The Rise Fund is "a global impact fund led by private equity firm TPG in collaboration with a group of renowned stakeholders." TPG (which stands for Texas Pacific Group) is one of the biggest damn private equity investment firms in the world. Found in 1992, they have about $50 billion kicking around at this point. There's a long list of various businesses they have glommed up or invested in, from J. Crew to PetCo. Oh, and in 2002 they teamed up with Bain and Goldman Sachs to perform the leveraged buyout of Burger King, which I can respect because a Whopper Junior with Cheese is my guilty pleasure. Later on they also snagged all or some of Neiman Marcus, Univision, Sabre, Alltel, Midwest Air Group, etc etc-- you get the idea.

Anyway, they whipped up the Rise Fund in December of 2016 Bill McGlashan, founder and managing partner of TPG, and Bono, lead singer of That Band You're Supposed To Like and an always-useful prop for capitalists who want to look socially conscious, and also and Jeff Skoll, a global entrepreneur, film producer, and impact investor-- also the first president of ebay. Skoll's film company had a piece of An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for Superman, and Spotlight. Presumably Bono and Skoll are among the "renowned stakeholders," a list which also includes Richard Branson and Laurene Powell Jobs.

The Rise Fund has seven areas targeted for their global impact fund (spoiler alert:  plain English is not one of them)-- Agriculture, Finance, Information, Healthcare, Infrastructure, Energy, and Education. And that's where one of their hot new hires comes in.

Arne Duncan is one of three new bright lights, along with John Rogers and Rick Levin. Rogers was a founding partner with Bridges Ventures US Sustainable Growth Fund, which in turn worked on social impact investment as well as Springboard Education, a provider of "extended learning programs" for "public and charter" schools (every time someone tacitly admits that charter schools are not public schools, I get a little bit of a warm glow inside). Levin is CEO of Coursera, the big name in online courses for the university crowd. Oh, and he used to be president of Yale.

Duncan's bio is properly puffed, pumped full of hot air, and shows what qualifications TPG was looking for:

During his tenure, Duncan created the $4 billion Race to the Top program to invest in reform and innovation and worked with Congress to secure additional investments in early learning programs and interventions to raise standards at lower-performing schools. Prior to his role as Secretary of Education, Duncan served for eight years as the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, where he boosted test scores and built consensus across the district’s many stakeholders.

He handled a lot of money, made his numbers and got stakeholders on board and-- hey, wait a minute. Duncan "boosted test scores" in Chicago? All by himself!? Do you mean to tell me all those years Duncan knew the secret of boosting test scores, even had the magical power to do it himself, and he let all of America's teachers twist in the wind?!

"A quality education" is the secret of success for everyone, said the man whose success has pretty much been built on being basketball buddies with an up-and-coming future President. “Creating quality takes innovation, partnership – from teachers, students, officials, and business stakeholders alike – and a strong commitment to building better outcomes. I’m eager to help and support The Rise Fund as it works to drive impact across the education sector." Man, driving impact across a whole sector is hard, like some kind of corporate high impact Iditarod.

The Education Sector team is the first of the seven to be formed, but you can be sure the other six will be along to help achieve "measureable, positive social and environmental outcomes alongside competitive financial returns — what we call 'complete returns'.” So "complete" means you make the world a better place while getting filthy rich. There's a moral conundrum buried in all this somewhere, but it's hard to make it out among the "evidence-based impact investing" and whatever rig one uses to "harness the power of the market to drive sustainable social and environmental change, which means that profits are not only possible, they are necessary to fulfil the mission." Yes, you actually can't do good works without turning an big profit. I believe both Jesus and Buddha both taught that.

Garbled blather used to dress up a pretense of social awareness and good works all in the service of wealth and wealth and gathering more wealth. Seems like a perfect fit for Duncan.

NC: The Company School

North Carolina (Motto: "We won't let Florida beat us to the bottom of the barrel") is considering some cool new charter school bills.

Some are the usual charter-flavored pork, like the bill that will raise the unregulated cap on charter enrollment growth from 20% to 30%. That is, any charter, including ones that demonstrably suck, can grow enrollment by 30% without having to ask anyone's permission. This is in keeping with North Carolina's rich history of making charter operators historically rich. Previous laws have also removed any accountability or oversight for charters that want to add grades.

Charter enrollment in North Carolina has doubled over the last five years. Charter fans might say, "See! That huge demand for charters tells you how awesome they are." I might respond that it could also be a sign that the legislature has systematically driven its public school system into a corner and made it increasingly unattractive. But that's a discussion for another day.

But the special new innovation is the concept of reserved charter seats for donors.

That's right! If your company donates land or buildings or equipment to a charter school, up to half of the seats in that charter could be reserved for the children of the company's parents. Employees of your company could also sit on the charter board of directors. Hand over a chunk of ground or a building, and your corporation can have its own school-- and be in charge of running it.

Rep. John R. Bradford III (R-Mecklenburg) says this is an "economic development tool" with companies locating in rural areas offering a perk to employees, pretty much like paying for employee meals. "This creates a vehicle where a company can create an employee benefit," he says.

Sure. A benefit. The first thing I'm thinking of is an employer saying, "Y'all come to work at our Podunksburg plant and we promise your kids won't have to go to school with, you know, Those People's Kids."

But hey-- haven't we had a system like this before, with companies providing schools and housing and stores?








Or the old coke town of Shoaf. Charming place.












Maybe I'm too quick in thinking of a company town with a company store and company school that is run by the company and which helps to fully control the fate of its employees.

Maybe what North Carolina has in mind is a elite private school that is available to select corporate elite, answerable to nobody in particular, and not only outside the realm of public education, but actually in the side the realm of corporate control. Maybe this is simply flat-out privatization, a means for corporate chieftains to both enrich themselves and protect their offspring from contact with Those People's Children.

Or maybe, having pushed the frontiers on charter schools and already started down the voucher path, North Carolina is trying to break new ground by presenting the fully-privatized in-house corporate charter school.

It's not a law yet, but congratulations, North Carolina, on finding bold new ways to assault public education. Your move, Florida!

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Betsy DeVos Is Not Entirely Wrong about This

Hey, it had to happen. Even a blind shooter occasionally hits something. And on Fox News America's Newsroom, she said this:

...there really isn’t any Common Core anymore

Breitbart reported on this as a means of whipping up some conservative high dudgeon about the Core, and correctly note that her observation that the Core is no longer out there in classrooms stands "in sharp contrast" to Trump's assertion "Common Core very bad, and although I have no idea what the hell it is, I think we should kill it with fire because many people not like bad thing end it good somehow whatever it is have you seen my ratings."


Now, yes-- DeVos is wrong in the sense that Common Core in some form or other is in many classrooms. In some states it's no longer called Common Core, but it's still out there, sort of.

The "sort of" is important, because as I've noted numerous times, the original vision of the Common Core is absolutely, completely dead.

Remember? The idea was that every state in the union would operate under exactly the same standards, and that while everyone was free to add a measly 15%, the heart of the Core could not be touched. We would all study the same stuff, using our Common Core aligned materials, and a student who moved from Iowa to Georgia could do so without missing a beat. And we would all take one of two assessments, so that every teacher and student in the country could be compared to every other teacher and student.

That did not happen.

The Core-aligned materials turn out to be a hodge-podge of textbooks aligned more to publisher's desires than Common Core Standards. Huge chunks of the standards have always been ignored because they aren't on the test (anybody seen a Common Core Speaking Unit lately?). And the Big Standardized Tests (the actual drivers of reformy curriculum)-- way more than two of them and not much beloved by anyone-- are themselves only loosely aligned to the Core.

Of course, as Valerie Strauss points out, what DeVos probably meant by "Common Core" was not the actual content of the standards, but the idea that the federal Department of Education [insert evil music cue here-- dun dun dunnnnnnn] can impose its control on state and local school districts. This remains a complicated point because the feds never directly imposed the Core; they just extorted states into adopting it of their own free will. ESSA now removes many of the department's extortion tools, though some of the mouth-frothing quotes at Breitbart note that ESSA is still filled with the language of "college and career ready," which is what we're saying instead of "common core" these days.

The feds couldn't impose the standards before, and they can't impose them or un-impose them now. It is up to states to decide what to do, and many have already made decisions about that issue.

The standards do have inertia on their side, as some form of the Core is the status quo in most states. But nobody particularly cares. In high-accountability states, schools aren't following the standards-- they're following the BS Tests. And classroom teachers, after an initial period of trying to be good soldiers, have long since "adapted" the standards to match their own best practices, even as administrators around the country created their own personal version of the standards (and some rebels even mostly ignored the whole business and went back to worrying about actual education).

But the original vision of an entire nation united behind one cramped and narrow vision of what education should be, with one unified set of standards enforced from sea to shining sea-- that didn't happen. What has happened is that the US education system is now clogged with the various fragments, mutant chunks, and toxic detritus of the Core. David Coleman and his buddies meant to build a beautiful, sleek silver spear, but what we have now is a disintegrated, splintered, corroded mess of pieces parts. Instead of one large spear stuck into the body of education, that body is riddled with Common Core shrapnel and buckshot, and instead of a quick and direct extraction, we're faced with a complicated and messy operation to improve our educational health. And ESSA says that the feds, who were already trying to perform surgery with mittens on, now must be handcuffed to the floor.

I'm not sure that Betsy DeVos understands any of that. But when she says there isn't any Common Core any more, she's not entirely wrong-- even if she doesn't understand why.


Monday, April 24, 2017

NEA Takes on Charters

The National Education Association has not always been swift to respond well to the currents of reformsterdom; lots of us still have a bad taste in our mouths from NEA's embrace of Common Core. And when NEA does take a position, it often does so with the lukewarm tap dance of a politician, and not an advocate for education (e.g. its resounding, "Perhaps Arne Duncan might try a bit harder to do a somewhat better job as secretary")

But NEA formed a task force on a proposed charter school statement, and it actually displays a bit of spine.  It has issued findings this month, and thanks to Fred Klonsky, there's a copy available on line. I've read it so that you don't have to, but if you're an NEA member, you probably should take a look.

Charter schools were started by educators who dreamed of schools in which they would be free to innovate, unfettered by bureaucratic obstacles.

So begins the introduction as it dips into the history of charter schools, reminding us that there is, at the heart of the movement, the germ of a not-so-bad idea. This well-sourced paper collects many factoids that you may half-remember, but-- damn-- the Waltons have provided seed money for one out of every four charter schools??!! Half the charters founded between 2006 and 2014 were funded by the federal government. And not a factoid, but a useful quote-- "The result of these efforts has been a massive and burgeoning sector of charter schools that are not subject to the same basic safeguards and standards as public schools." True that.

Key Background

The first section of the paper looks at what the charter school sector actually looks like. Graphs show raw charter numbers as well as number and percent of student population-- as of 2014, charter students were 5.7% of all US students, and charter school numbers have been growing steadily since 2000. However...

Beneath the growth, however, lies a churn. Charter schools open quickly but close quickly too. Among charter schools that opened in the year 2000, 5% closed within the first year; 21% closed within the first five years; and fully 33% closed within the first ten years. In some cases the closure happens mid-year, leaving students, parents and teachers in limbo. Many of the disrupted students then enroll in traditional public schools which must accommodate the transfers without new resources. 

In fact, nearly half of the students dumped by a charter mid-year between 2000-2012 were African American.

The report also shows who runs the schools, with the majority of authorizers being either local school boards or state boards of education.

The report also works down the list of rules that charters don't have to follow. While some states require open meetings, many of the heavy hitters like California do not. Only five states forbid for-profit charters, but virtually none provide regulations that stop any of the profiteering workarounds developed in the charter sector-- in fact, a third of charter states don't even hold charters to the prevailing ethics laws. I've said it before-- most of the time, a non-profit charter is just a for-profit with a good money-laundering system.

Charters do have to follow civil rights laws-- if someone enforces them. Labor laws don't work quite the same in charter land, nor do rules about professional requirements. Only eighteen states require charter teachers to meet the same qualification requirements as public school teachers.

The report concludes that the push for charters has resulted in separate and unequal systems, with charters being largely under-regulated and not locally accountable. And Trump-DeVos looks to make it only more so. If you want a quick rundown of the facts and figures of the effects of DeVosian reform on Michigan schools. Sample: From 2003 to 2015, Michigan dropped from 28th to 41st in Fourth Grade reading. Another sample: Michigan is spending about $1 billion-with-a-B annually on charter schools, 80% of which are for-profits.

The Failed Competitive Model of Charters

First, eighty studies worth of research show that charters, once you correct for demographics and other factors, get test-score results that "are not meaningfully better or worse" than public school results.

However, the impact on finances and community, as laid out in the report, is negative. Charters, under current law, drain resources from public schools, and disrupt community schools, both for the students and for the other community members. And as noted in many reports, charters increase segregation.

And all of that is before we get to the enormous and widespread fraud and waste of charter schools. The report sites several specific instances, like the Ohio charter with 50% phantom student enrollment  or the New York charter that borrowed $5.1 million to buy and renovate a building for which the actual purchase and renovation costs were $1.4 million.

Finally, there are virtual schools, the cyber charters that even a study CREDO, a charter-friendly group, found were a waste of time and money. Cyber charters have been shown pretty conclusively to be failures, and yet states like Pennsylvania continue to shovel money into their fund-sucking maw.

Competition has had more than ample opportunity to spur both charter and public schools to greatness. It hasn't happened. It's time to admit that charter operators do not know any special secret of educating students.

Charters as Incubators of Innovation within a School District

NEA here acknowledges that this much-hyped charter feature can actually happen, and gives some examples like Avalon Charter School in St. Paul, MN. But they lay out two requirements necessary for such success--

1) Local school boards are the only proper authorizers of charter schools, and

2) That board must create the criteria and requirements under which the charter will operate.

The NEA Statement on Charters

So what is the official NEA taskforce position on charter schools?

NEA supports public charter schools that are authorized and held accountable by public school districts.

To be a public charter, you have to be accountable to the public, and that means the elected officials who run the school district. 

NEA opposes as a failed and damaging experiment unaccountable privately managed charters.

Privately owned or managed charters damage the communities they enter. In general, they don't work, providing no real benefit at huge cost. And cyber charters are especially bad.

NEA stands for our students wherever they are educated. Relegating students and communities to unaccountable privately managed schools that do not comply with the basic safeguards and standards detailed above has created separate systems of charters that are inherently unequal. To counter the threat to public education of such charters, NEA supports both communities organizing for quality public education and educators working together to improve charter schools. 

Other facts from the appendices

The top five charter states-- California, Texas, Florida, Arizona, and Michigan-- contain over 50% of all charter school students in the nation. If you throw in the next five-- Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Colorado, and Georgia-- you account for 71% of all charter students.

If you rank states by the percentage of their students who are in charters, the top by a huge margin is DC itself, with 42%. Next, in order, are Arizona, Colorado, Louisiana, Utah, Michigan, Florida, and Delaware, all of which have more than 9% of their students in charters.

Here's some other rankings by way of growth:



And there's also some rankings by individual districts. Los Angeles was out in front as of 2014, but that seems like ages ago.

Big Frickin' Deal

I suppose folks may dismiss the report and the stances because they figure NEA will automatically be anti-charter. That is not so obvious to me-- after all, if the nefarious union goal is to create lots of teachers so they can organize lots of unions so they can rake in dues money as part of their evil plan to conquer the country (because so many of our national public officials are such union fans)-- anyway, if NEA wanted to grow its potential membership base, charter schools would be the perfect way to do it, and NEA would be cheering charters on while quietly trying to organize them all and spread the union influence.

On top of that, charters are beloved by many politicians who are and have been union sort-of-allies. It's possible that this report is coming out at this point because now that it's Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos pushing charters instead of Arne Duncan and Barack Obama, it's okay for NEA to oppose them. Maybe, but the country is still full of powerful charter-backing Democrats.

In other words, I don't think it's a given that NEA would be tough on charters. And yet here they are, with a report saying pretty unequivocally that privately run charters are bad news for public education (with footnotes and non-alternative facts and actual data and everything).

So I'm glad to see this report and hoping that NEA is going to be pushing it a bit harder in the months ahead. Let's hope it represents a trend.

.

.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

HYH: Edvertising

If I've said it once, I've said it a gazillion times:

The free market does not foster superior quality; the free market fosters superior marketing. 

Annnnd here it comes. The marketing.

The latest episode of Have You Heard with Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider takes a look at educational marketing (it also posits the heretofore unknown product "Extruda," which... just makes me uncomfortable).

There are soooo many issues with school marketing, and not that marketing a school is "unseemly." For instance, as the cast points out, most marketing is aimed at selling a private good, while education is a public good. There is also the issue of customer evaluation-- New Coke had the weight of the advertising world behind it, but that could not overcome all the people who actually drank some and said, loudly, "Yuck!" With a charter school, you may not figure out that you were scammed for quite some time.

But most striking is just the cost. Sarah Butler Jessen is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Bowdoin College who studies school marketing and makes a guest appearance on the show. She holds up Eva Moskowitz's Success Academies as one of the leading examples of charter marketing, and she unloads two stunning factoids-- SA has spent about $1,000 per student on marketing, and marketing is the second-biggest expenditure for the charter chain.

$1,000 per student on marketing. Imagine what you could do if you had another $1,000 to spend on actually educating each student.

This is part of the problem of edu-marketing-- even if your marketing is Honest and Pure and True, you have just spent a ton of money on something other than educating students.

Jessen also talks about how charter management groups and chains are far ahead of the marketing war, particularly with their branding and I was surprised (though on reflection I shouldn't have been) that, for instance, KIPP has a whole Brand Guideline Video. Like any other brand leader, KIPP's identity and marketing face is about much more than education. And this is a sobering part of Jessen's research-- while we've all been debating and arguing and thrashing about charters and charter policy and all the rest of it, KIPP and the others have been slowly building the brand perception that charter schools are like private schools in their general awesomeness and desirability.

Marketing also circles back to one of the signature issues of  charters, which is regulation. The average civilian approaches advertising with an attitude of "Well, they couldn't just say that if it was a flat out lie." That, of course, is not actually true. When terms like "organic" (or "common core") are unregulated, advertisers can slap them on anything. And when charters and their marketing are unregulated, they can make any promise they like, whether they plan to keep it or not. I am reminded of a local private school that used to be infamous for promising parents anything ("You're looking for a left-handed lacrosse program that's tied to Latin studies and underwater basket weaving classes? Oh, we totally have that.") and never delivering on it. When it comes to low-information customers, charter schools naturally benefit from a steady supply of new parents who have no previous experience in the marketplace.

This is yet another valuable and important (and, believe it or not, entertaining) episode of this podcast. Check it out right now--





ICYMI: Day After Earth Edition (4/23)

Your list of worthwhile reads from the week. Enjoy, and pass them on.

Looking for the Living Among the Dead

A beautiful Easter meditation from Jose Luis Vilson

The Privateer Legislators

A family friend passed this along from Florida. An articulate argument for not privatizing education in Florida, or anywhere else, from Roger Williams.

Chester Finn Jr. Calls for an End to Teacher Tenure

I assume that if you read here, you also follow Diane Ravitch, but it's easy to lose pieces in the midst of the Ravitchian avalanche of posts, and here's one you really don't want to miss, as the education historian points out what's wrong about so many arguments against teacher tenure.

Call This The Empty Chair 

One more panel about teaching without a single teacher in sight.

Where Did All the Black Teachers Go?

A personal essay about one of the most under-addressed issues in education-- why can't schools hold onto teachers of color?

School Choice: The Faustian Bargain

Russ Walsh looks at what choicers require folks to give up in order to get choice.

Mr Staples, Here's What Happened To Black Teachers

A solid response to that NYT piece from the Schools Matter blog.

Homework Is Wrecking Our Kids

This piece is actually over a year old, but it's still the truth, and still well-worth a read and a share.

Largest Charter Chain in LA Raises Millions To Fight Unionization

Facing a unionizing teacher staff? Charters could take any number of responses, but in LA, the largest charter chains went with "Collect $2.2 from various anonymous friends to keep unions from happening."

As It Always Should Be

Everyone with a little needs a Teacher Tom in their life. Here he is discovering one more beautiufl and joyous thing about his kids.

These Are a  Few of My Favorite Green Things

For Earth Day, another post from my daughter about the small sustainable things we can all do to help.



Saturday, April 22, 2017

Checker Still Doesn't Understand Tenure

Chester "Checker" Finn, Grand Poobah Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, is the reformster most likely to unleash his higher dudgeon over Kids These Days and Those Darn Teachers, and he has done so again on the Fordham Flypaper blog. "Will Teacher Tenure Die?" appears to have been edited down from an original title, "Will Teacher Tenure Ever Die, Please?"

Some of his complaint is simply incorrect. As his old colleague Diane Ravitch points out, his notion that K-12 trickled down from colleges and universities is ahistoric-- K-12 tenure was a response to too many teachers losing jobs to school board members' nieces and failing to register with the correct political party, among other abuses.


After cheering on the slow death of tenure at the college and university level (because I'm sure having a cadre of part-time underpaid instructors is going to make college education super), Finn goes on to bemoan the continued existence of tenure in the K-12 world (even, in some cases, by contract in right to work states). And teachers can get tenure after only a few years and some "satisfactory" ratings, which strikes Finn as evidence. This is an old reformy trope, and I'm not sure what to make of it-- instead of saying, "Hey, teachers are mostly well-rated, so the profession must be in good shape," reformsters say, "Hey, teachers are mostly well-rated, so the evaluation system must be broken, because we just know that a huge number of teachers suck." So, data is good, unless it conflicts with your pre-conceived biases, in which case, just throw the data out.

Finn also persist in calling tenure "life time employment," which is simply flat out wrong. I can rattle off a list of teachers in my area who have lost their jobs despite tenure. Any teacher who's been around a while can. And while there are some large districts where the process is long, convoluted and prohibitively difficult, mostly "We can't fire her because if tenure" is administrator-speak for "I could fire her, but it would take a lot of time and I'd have to, you know, work really hard, and then I would have to find a replacement and you know how hard that would be and I'm already backed up on meetings this week and now some kid just threw up in the hall, so how about I just blame her on the union and tenure and get back to my own work." Where burdensome dismissal procedures exist, they have been negotiated into contracts. Fixing those contracts by outlawing tenure is like fixing the electoral college by installing a dictatorship-- little bit of overkill.

Finn likes the idea of trading tenure for money, and he's not the first. He's correct in noting that job security is a feature that makes low pay palatable (or at least choke-downable) for many teachers, but he misses the flip side of this-- due process protections are something school districts can offer to make their jobs appealing, and they don't cost the district a cent. Finn imagines asking teachers, "Would you give up job protections in exchange for another $25K?" But the real challenges is asking districts, "Which would you rather do-- promise teachers not to fire them for stupid reasons, or pay them each another twenty-five grand?" Which choice do you think boards would prefer? (Hint: only one option increases the budget by a few million dollars>)

Finn recognizes that tenure has value as a bulwark against favoritism and discrimination, but then dismisses it because "the codification in constitutions and statutes of innumerable due process and anti-discrimination protections radically shrinks the rationale"-- in other words, we have laws about that stuff that people mostly follow, mostly. The thing is, absent any sort of reliable or valid teacher evaluation system (which is where we are right now), any administrator can game the system and mask her discriminatory and biased behavior behind any sort of "clean" rationale. And laws do not cover things like running a teacher out of the classroom because she won't let a school board members child start on the softball team or play the lead in the school play.

Finn ticks off "academic freedom" as a legitimate concern, except that the First Amendment argument doesn't have as much "oomph" for him because so many professors are using their First Amendment rights to indoctrinate pupils. In other words, freedom of speech is only necessary for people who are saying the right things. He also correctly notes that so many court cases have taken so many chunks out of the First Amendment for teachers that it's fair "to ask just how much difference does “academic freedom” make to a fourth grade teacher."

He skips completely over the issue of teacher advocacy-- the situation where a teacher has to advocate for a student against the school administration itself.

But Finn has some other ideas, and they start with this humongous whopper:

It’s no secret that the HR practices of private and charter schools—neither of which typically practices tenure—work far better than those of district schools from the standpoint of both school leaders and their students.

As it turns out, it is absolutely a secret. Or, more accurately, it's a thing that is not known to be true.

What Finn means, because he is a fan of the CEO model of charter schools, is that the school leaders are free to hire and fire and shuffle around teachers at will. Nobody should have job security, because job security interferes with the visionary boss's freedom to indulge his vision as he sees fit. Like a 19th century robber baron, he will sit atop his kingdom and only his judgment will be needed to determine What Is Best for all of the Little People. The Little People should be grateful to receive such largesse, and should show their gratitude by staying in their rightful place and keeping their mouths shut. Think I'm overstating the case? Here's the rest of the paragraph that was kicked off by that last sentence:

That’s because the leadership team can generally employ (and deploy) the instructors they deem best suited to their pupils and they’re not obligated to retain any who don’t do a satisfactory job. They can be nimble in regrouping, restaffing, and redirecting their schools—and everyone who works there knows that’s how it goes. Nobody has a right to continued employment untethered to their own performance and the school’s needs. The employer has the right to change the shape, nature, and size of the organization, to redeploy human resources, to substitute capital for labor, to replace elbow grease and sitzfleisch with technology, and to hire and fire according to shifting pupil needs and organizational priorities.

Emphasis mine. 19th century robber baron attitude, his. In a Proper School, teachers are drones and widgets, coming and going and moving about at the pleasure of their CEO, who will decide what needs to be done, how it needs to be done, and even if the organization needs to be changed in some fundamental way. Pupils will consume whatever is put before them at the bidding of their Betters. Organizational priorities, as defined by the Gifted CEO, rule all. In this world, the CEO is the sun, and those damned planets better not even think of unionizing or demanding tenure.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Charters and Commitment

It happened again. This time in Milwaukee. Students at the  Universal Academy for the College Bound Webster Campus returned to find themselves in a completely different school, because a charter management company had decided they'd rather move on than finish out their contract for the year.



Universal Companies took with them their books and their technology. Milwaukee Public Schools filled in the gaps and the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association-- you know, that damn union that only worries about adult interests-- stepped in to help the staff.

It could have been worse. In other places it has been worse. The company gave MPS a warning ahead of time-- almost a full month's notice. And they handed the school back to MPS rather than simply locking the door.

And if you're thinking, "Well, of course they did that-- what sort of monster would close a building with no notice," then you haven't been following charter schools much. Charters don't have to explain themselves when they close, like these two closures in Indiana-- parents demanded an explanation and were ignored. Or this similar story from Philly. And these schools at least finished the year-- here's a charter that closed up shop in September. Here's a story about a charter in North Carolina that had to close mid-year mostly because they got caught lying about enrollment in order to get double the money they were entitled to; parents were informed less than 48 hours before the school closed its doors. Here's a Florida school that closed suddenly and without explanation in May of a school year. Or this Ohio charter that closed mid-year without warning. Just google "charter school closes unexpectedly" and watch the stories pile up.

But those are anecdotes. If you want to see the big picture, look at this reporting from the Center for Media and Democracy's Mediawatch that took some simple available data from NCES to show how many charters had closed between 2000 and 2013. There's an interactive map that lets you drill down, but the grand total is in the neighborhood of 2,500. 2,500 charter schools closed-- and that's not counting the schools from the past several years. That includes schools that closed during the school year, or schools that folded at the end of the year.

Or the recent report on charter schools from NEA, which shows what percentage of charters have closed as a function of how many years they've been open-- after one year, 5% of charters have been closed. At ten years, it's 33%. When we get to thirteen years, 40% of charters have shut their doors. In other words, a third of charter schools close their doors before they are a decade old.

This seems to be a feature of charter schooling that comes as a shock and surprise to parents. I suspect that's because one of the most basic things we expect from a school, particularly one that tries to bill itself as a public school as many charters do, is that it will be around basically forever. We expect to be able to go back to the schools we attended; if we can't, that's considered a notable loss, a sign that Something Bad happened to that school or community. It is one of the things we expect from a school that we rarely name--

Commitment.

But modern charters are not public schools, and they do not make a public school commitment to stay and do the work over the long haul. They are businesses, and they make a business person's commitment to stick around as long as it makes business sense to do so. That does not make them evil, but it does make them something other than a public school. And it underlines another truth-- students are not their number one priority.

Some modern charter operators claim that  these school closures are a feature, not a bug. The system is working; the invisible hand is weeding the garden. But that ignores the real disruption and confusion and damage done to children and families that must search from school to school. Instead of the excitement and joy of going back to school to see friends and favorite teachers, students face the uncertainty of not knowing which school they'll attend, how long they'll attend it, learning their way around, even as they wonder when this will all happen again. If school is a sort of second family, charter schools can be an unstable family that moves every six months with parents always on the verge of divorce.

Some charters are born to be train wrecks-- not only do educational amateurs get involved in charter schools, but business amateurs do as well. But very few are born with the intention of lasting for generation after generation, which is exactly what we expect of public schools. When Betsy DeVos says that she values families and choice over institutions, this is exactly what she is rejecting-- a commitment to stand by those families and communities for generations, to be an institution that brings stability and continuity to a community. More importantly, an institution that says, "When you need us, we will be right here. You can count on us, because we are committed."

Commitment matters in all relationships. It matters in schools. Parents and students and community members and taxpayers have a right to expect commitment from their schools. If charters want to pretend to be public schools, they should step up and make a commitment greater than, "We'll be right here as long as it suits us. On the day it doesn't suit us anymore, we'll be gone. Good luck to you."


Leaders, Character, and Policy

Many of us spend huge amounts of time discussing and debating education policy. But where the synthetic rubber meets the recycled asphalt, policy is not the most important thing. In every school, in every district, what really matters is the character of the leadership.

In the same way that workers do not quit workplaces so much as they quit a boss, teachers are influenced by the administrators in their building. District administrators are influential primarily in how they affect building administrators. Policy decisions on the state and federal level are most influential to the extent that they influence the behavior of actual educators in actual leadership positions.


Put another way, a sudden implementation of actual good education policies by state and federal governments (boy, what a dream that is) would not suddenly transform a bad building principal who makes staff miserable into a great principal with a happy staff.

In fact, a good principal, given the chance by her superintendent, can seriously blunt the impact of bad policy choices. In Florida, a state that is a champion producer of bad education policy, there are schools where principals actually find reasonable, humane, decent solutions to problems created by stupid policies.

A good manager in any business or institution really has just one job-- to create conditions in which her people can do their best work. If it's raining, a good manager is out there holding an umbrella over the front-line worker; not yelling at that worker for being wet.

It's important to have an administrator who has classroom experience, who knows the regulations, who has a broad understanding of education, and all the other things search committees look for. But one of the most critical issues is character.

At this point in my career, I've worked for many administrators, and I don't remember the various policy decisions and implementations nearly as well as I remember whether they were decent people or not.

A principal might not be the brightest bulb in the chandelier, might not be on the cutting edge of education, might not even have a clear picture of what's going on in the classroom, but if he's a decent person who treats his teachers with respect, listens to what they have to say, and puts the needs of the students first, I can be happy working for him. Even if he wants to implement or support policies I disagree with, we can work things out. I can advocate for my students without having to watch my back. On the other hand, if he is mean, vindictive, selfish, distrustful, and spiteful, it doesn't matter what policies he supports-- every day is going to be miserable, and I am going to use up a chunk of my energy just deciding which battles to fight and how to fight them and what to do when I lose.

Of course a leader-staff relationship is a two-way street, and teachers can make things better or worse by their own choices. But administrators decide what rules we'll play by and will ultimately decide whether to share power or grab onto it with both hands. Administrators have a huge hand in setting the tone, in creating an atmosphere for their schools.

I write all this to remind myself-- I read and read about schools where things really suck, and often the administration is an invisible hand in that picture-- because I'm privileged to work for a principal who's a decent guy, and while he's not perfect and we don't always agree and I've worked for some pretty not-good examples of the breed in my career, it is easy to forget just how grindingly rough it is to work in some school buildings in this country. It's easy to forget how hard it is to work for a powerful jerk every day when you aren't living it.

Bad policy certainly arms and enables bad administrators, but one of the great undiscussed questions of both ed reform and resistance to it is the question of how to get good people in those front offices. Certainly some reformsters have some cool ideas about how to make a buck putting any warm body in there, as long as it shares their same bad values (looking at you, Relay GSE and Broad Academy), but all of us need to remember that without a decent person in the administrator's seat, it's really hard to drive the education bus anywhere productive and useful. And while we're talking about all the big picture issues, all across this country there are schools whose Number One issue is that they've got a dysfunctional jerk behind the steering wheel.

Can this be addressed on the policy level? Sure-- some. Being a principal and superintendent kind of sucks these days, in that you have all the responsibility for everything short of the weather, and very little power to control any of the outcomes you're responsible for. We talk about the teacher shortage, but mostly smart and capable people in education know better than to get into administration, and so a vast pool of people who could be good at it avoid it like the plague because what ethical decent educator wants to be responsible for implementing state and federal mandated malpractice? So we end up with a handful of good, decent folks, some others who figured they'd like a raise, another handful who just don't understand what the job is, and a bunch of peripatetic egos wandering the country collecting big bucks before they end their three-year local dance.

In the meantime, it takes local action to find local solutions for the problems of bad administrators. It is perhaps a conversation that more people should get involved in.

The Attack on Charter Schools

Nashville Charter School parents complain that they are under attack and disrespected. Charter advocates have long panel discussions about how to fight back against the attacks on charters and choice. Every 9-12 months, a new website is launched because reformy fans of charter and choice believe that they are under attack and need to get their story Out There.

Even the newly-minted teacher of the year, who works at a charter school, is concerned that public and charter schools are seen as "in conflict."

So why do charter schools feel so attacked and put upon?


Part of it may be an illusion of privilege. When you are an rich old white guy who has always gotten his way, it can be shocking and destabilizing when people say "No" to you. If you are a money-soaked hedge-funder surrounded by compliant underlings, it may be upsetting when people who should know their place start getting uppity. When you live soaked in privilege, any denial of your God-given right to get your own way might well feel like an attack. But that doesn't describe everyone who has thrown their support behind charters and choice.

Some of it is certainly karma, history coming around. Many charter choice fans seem to have forgotten that they spent years pitching charters and choice by chicken littling about Failing Public Schools and how much the public schools suck and how trained educators were awful, better replaced by lightly trained best-and-brightests from some ivy-covered hall.They are like the bully who, having finally pushed the kid with the glasses too far so that he takes boxing lessons and starts to punch back at their bullying but, says, "What are you doing! You're supposed to be too nice to fight back!" But that doesn't cover all the possibilities, either.

No, the necessity of a public vs. charter cage match is baked right into the charter laws of most states, courtesy of one of the central lies of the modern charter movement.

The Big Lie of modern charters is that we can have multiple parallel school systems for the same money we spent on one. Sure. When you're having trouble with your family budget and maintaining one home, the solution is to move half your family into a hotel. If it's hard to pay the bills for one car, buy a second or third or fourth one.

Charter choice fans sell us charters as free private school. It won't cost a penny more. And this lie guarantees conflict.

Because pubic schools and charters are trapped by that lie in a zero sum game. Every taxpayer dollar that goes to a charter school doesn't go to a pubic school. Every taxpayer dollar that a public school hangs onto is a dollar that charters don't get. For one to survive, the other must get beaten up. Even a well-meaning mild-mannered friendly charter school cannot avoid attacking public schools. Under current charter laws, it is impossible for charter and public schools NOT to be in a state of constant conflict.

It doesn't have to be this way. Charter choice supporters in the legislatures could say, "We think the idea of free access to private school for some students is a good idea, and so we are going to raise taxes and allocate the money it will take to do this right. We will fully fund public schools and we will fully fund charter schools and they will be able to work together for the benefit of the larger community because they will no longer be battling to the death for an inadequately small pool of funding."

Of course, charter choice supporters do not want to talk about charter choice systems as a new entitlement to free private school, and they do not want to talk about raising taxes. And so where charter choice is the Way To Go, we have multiple parallel school systems, mostly underfunded except for those that are able to draw extra funding from well-to-do parents or friendly philanthropists.

And, of course, we have those choice supporters for whom a fight to the death is the point. Their hope is that charter schools will finish off public systems, leaving only privatized schools that function "properly," aka "through market forces." Meanwhile, the "government schools" that run on the tax dollars stolen from hard-working rich folks and used to educate Those People can be properly starved to death.

And so charter schools and their fans, even the well-meaning decently parental ones, must live with the feeling of being under attack, because the system is currently constructed so that charter schools must be a threat to the health and continued existence of public schools, and public school supporters can either fight back or lie down and die.

It doesn't have to be this way. It would probably be better for everyone if it wasn't. But until we address the Big Lie at the heart of current charter choice policy, this is how it will stay.