Friday, January 15, 2016

The Walton Billion Dollar Plan

It's only eight pages long, but it is simultaneously depressing and disturbing. It's no fun to read, but if you want to understand how the charter boosters are coming at public education, you need to read it. It's the Walton Family Foundation 2015-2020 K-12 Strategic Overview, and yes, I've read it so that you don't have to, but you probably should, anyway.

This is the story of how The Walton is going to spend $1 Billion-with-a-B on charter schools over the next  five years (twice as much as Eli Broad is spending to take over the Los Angeles school district). And when that much money talks, we need to listen. Here's what it's saying.

The Baloney Kickoff

The plan kicks off with some basic background, and we know immediately that we've entered a zone high on spin and low on reality. What's the WFF mission?

They aimed to improve lives by expanding access to educational and economic opportunity. Since then, the Walton family has carried forward this vision — working to foster equal opportunity and build a more just society. 

They believe they are "uniquely qualified" for this work. You know what the largest private employer in America is uniquely qualified to do? Make sure that all of its employees have a great living wage and superior benefits package. But no-- we're just going to blow up the building that is Retail America, make a bundle off the demolition, and spend a fraction of that just cleaning up the shrubberies around the charred ruins.

WFF Education History Baloney

The Walton wants to provide a little background. They've spent $1 Billion-with-a-B "investing" in order "to improve educational opportunities for America's children-- and to prove wrong the prevailing wisdom that poverty and ZIP code determine destiny." Which leads me to ask, where exactly does that "wisdom" prevail? With a billion dollars, could you not attack actual problems rather than going toe-to-toe with a big straw man?

Fun fact: One out of every four charter schools has gotten Walton money.

Next, the Walton repeats some dubious research about how awesomely better charters are, including a silly study from CREDO that claims that charters give students extra "days" of learning. The Walton blithely skips past all of the issues with charter claims to assert that if you just put poor kids in a charter school, they do way better. "Charter schools are proving that these students can learn at levels comparable to, or even higher than, their peers with greater advantages. Today, there are hundreds of examples of schools beating the odds, and doing so at scale." Well, no. There aren't. But it's a useful rhetorical strategy. I saw a dozen Yeti in my backyard this morning. I did! Go ahead and try to prove I didn't. Wiser men than I have laid out the problems with studies "proving" charter swellness, but the bottom line is that charters do not have any more success with students than public schools, and often they have considerably less.

The Walton is also proud to have helped create an entire shadow network of unqualified teachers and administrators, citing support for Relay Graduate School of Education, Teach for America, and The New Teacher Project (TNTP), all exercises in giving unqualified people a huge budget to hand each other accreditations.

Next comes the scary statistic parade to show that there's still a crisis a'brewin'. Here's the College Board's bogus "only 43% of high school students are college ready" and some chicken littling about the PISA scores-- they're low low LOW! (but we'll not mention they always have been). Achievement gaps! Opportunity gaps! Waiting lists! Teacher shortages! Every reformy talking point ever launched, no matter how often it has been debunked, is here, leading us to the overwhelming question, "How will America's schools survive?"

Lessons Learned

Okay, I know you were nodding off at the billionth re-singing of the Reformster Chorus, but now you need to sit up and pay attention, because the Walton is going to tell you what they've learned. They understand now that their old theory of change was flawed. 

The thought was that more choices would generate more competition. Competition would catalyze systematic improvement. 

Let's think about this for a second. Let's really think about whose theory this was. This was the Walton theory, the theory of people whose entire fortune is built on being hugely competitive, leading to several results, over and over-- the systemic destruction of most retailers in a community who aren't Wal-Mart. Nor have they achieved this by pursuing excellence-- raise your hand if you associate the Wal-Mart brand with excellence. No, the Wal-Mart brand is built on "broad mediocirty that's cheap and good enough for unwealthy people" and the very goal of their competitiveness has been to win the retail competition by eradicating other choices. Wal-Mart's business plan is not, "We will go into a community, compete by providing excellent products to the community, and when we're done, there will be a broad range of excellent choices among many retailers."

I continue to be gobsmacked that the Waltons, of all people, would imagine that school choice would spark competition that would lead to excellence, because these are people who seem to have a pretty good idea of how the free market works-- and the free market does not work in ways that go well with public education.

But they have figured out that competition is not enough, and so they have a new theory.

In order for choice and opportunity — the ultimate forms of parent empowerment — to spur change, cities need to create environments that support choice. This means creating enrollment platforms, equitable transportation access, fair funding and readily accessible, current information on schools and student performance for families and other stakeholders.

Under its 2015-20 K-12 Education Strategic Plan, the Walton Family Foundation is aiming to enhance choice, spur innovation and build more of the environmental factors that support choice in cities. It will invest $1 billion over the five-year period to expand educational opportunity across the United States. 

So here come the four initiatives, the four horsemen leading the billion-dollar Walton school choice charge.

Investing in Cities

This has become evident in the new vision of Walton and in that of Eli Broad in LA as well. It's not enough to buy your own school district-- you need to own a piece of the city it's in as well. The Walton lists some cities that make the grade with "conditions supporting systemwide educational improvement and where the foundation can have the greatest impact."

This is by far the largest section of the four, and the Walton targets several areas for investment.

* Supply. They want to "build and sustain high-quality schools." This would be a better idea if they knew how to identify such schools.
* Talent. Recruit and train "more effective teachers and school leaders." We've seen how much they know about this.
* Enabling choice. Pushing systems like, presumably, unified enrollment.
* Policy. Get local lawmakers to rig the game more in favor of charters and choice.
* Community support. "Organizing, communicating and engaging directly with people who live and work in cities to understand their needs and build authentic community partnerships." This presumably does not include asking them if they would rather not have a bunch of charters move into their community, or if they can think of other ways that their slice of Walton billiony largesse could be used to help them.

Supporting the High-Quality Choice Movement

More giving devoted to creating "local environments that are friendly to choice." That means "advocating for favorable policies," as well as supporting reformy groups, and supporting organizations that help choice/charter schools "find" the facilities they need. Nice choice, that "find," as it covers building new facilities or just wrestling existing school buildings away from the public schools that already occupy them.

Also, "investing in communications to build awareness and support for high-quality choice." So, more money for lobbying, advocacy, and PR.


The Walton would particularly like to support "novel school models" (such as those focused on career and technical education), "citywide enrollment models," and-- uh-oh-- this last one is even more Reformy 2.0:

New ways — beyond test scores — to advance long-term success, including understanding noncognitive attributes 

So Competency Based Education or Performance Based Learning or whatever we will eventually call all testing, all data collection, all the time. PLUS doing the same for personality traits!

When considering innovative ideas, The Walton will ask, "Does it solve a problem? Does it fit the WFF theory of change? Is there potential for a breakthrough? Is the idea transferable? Can its success be tested objectively?"  Only one of those is a legitimate question-- does it solve a problem. But "can its success be tested objectively" guarantees that whatever they fund, it won't be particularly useful.

Research and Evaluation

The fourth horseman will be arranged around initiatives centered around:

1. Research that provides rigorous, actionable informationto inform the foundation’s city, high-quality choice and innovation investments.
2. Research investigating big questions related to the foundation’s theory of change.

So, research that supports how right The Walton is about what they're doing. They propose to use evidence to "refine" the theory of change and to "identify and support the most effective grantees" and that all is exactly the right thing to say and would be very heartening, except that the earlier section covering the Waltonian version of education history shows that they are not so much interested in following the evidence wherever it might lead as they are interested in finding evidence to prove what they have already concluded is the truth.

The Wrapup

We will work to help create an environment that fosters choice and opportunity, and we will empower more low-income, high-needs students to perform at the same level of excellence as students at today’s best public schools. 

Again, note that it's no longer enough just to boost choice/charter schools-- we are now targeting the entire "environment." And the theory of change still assumes that once we get low-income, high-needs students out of those awful public schools and into awesome choice/charter schools, they will be "empowered" to do better because, I guess, it's the public school that's holding them back. The Walton, while acknowledging that "change takes time," ends with a call for urgency and a declaration that "we cannot and will not stand by while the extraordinary talents of children are squandered and the quintessential American dream of opportunity goes unfulfilled.

Should we conclude that public schools are doing the squandering? I guess so. But I can't help pointing out again that if they were really concerned about the effects of poverty and the opportunity gap, the largest private employer in America could certainly help by making it that much easier for folks to find full time jobs with better-than-minimum pay and full benefits. 


  1. Walmart was a place to get decent quality at a good price. Maybe not anymore. When Sam died, the heirs did not share his commitment to any type of quality but reconfigured the business to seek high profits. That was when 1--the greeters were dismissed and 2--the commitment to USA manufactured goods was dumped in order to bring in the Chinese imports. With that in mind, I'm wondering what these people (Waltons) think they are getting out of their education meddling. Someone please enlighten me.

  2. "With that in mind, I'm wondering what these people (Waltons) think they are getting out of their education meddling. Someone please enlighten me."

    Why, they'll be training the next generation of cashiers, stockers, counter sales...It will be like "hamburger university" is to McDonalds.

    Walmart! The company with more working individuals who require supplemental income from welfare, than any other corporation in America. Famous for the 39 hour work week, that prevents you from being eligible for not so great health care...Selling your soul to the devil ... the very problem with the country. Don't send your kids to this Charter School...Do *your* homework, and make sure the standards are high, rigorous, but not alienating, or boring. Immersive education, with minimal 'technology' is a concept you can't really try at the public school level. That's what I love about Charter Schools. You can 'experiment' with alternative methods, for kids who would not have completed high school, otherwise.

  3. There are a number of articulate and, I believe, well-meaning reform-as-highest-priority advocates out there. I have been having some conversations with them lately. I'm beginning to believe that this notion . . .

    " Wal-Mart's business plan is not, "We will go into a community, compete by providing excellent products to the community, and when we're done, there will be a broad range of excellent choices among many retailers."

    . . . is what they are missing. Nothing about the competition model provides an incentive for any competitor to be just one option among many good options. The ultimate goal is to be THE option. Growth is the only measure of success and if you aren't steadily taking market share, you die.

  4. Love the article, but I would caution us to not lump all "Performance Based Education" in the same "BAD" column as "Charter Schools". I've seen PBA used in a Charter School to create a much more personalized and learner-centered education for students. First, the school was started by a couple of teachers, not some hedge fund manager. Second, the PBL is used, not as a primary instructional method, but as a way to make sure students acquire the requisite knowledge and skills, while at the same time, giving them options to USE that knowledge and those skills in projects consistent with their individual interests. There are many more positive aspects to this school's use of PBL, but that's for another day.

    I agree that assembly line personalized instruction that forces the same content on all students is despicable...but so are standards and, incredibly, few question the need for those. But is it in our best interests to pick up on a generic term that reformsters happen to use and condemn it out of hand without being much more selective about what, specifically, we are condemning. If we do, we risk throwing out some potentially promising babies with the polluted bathwater.

    1. From what you say, we shouldn't put all charters in the "BAD" column either, which I don't think anyone would dispute; innovative charters started by teachers would be in keeping with Shanker's original vision.

      Any tool can be effective when used appropriately. The trouble is that they want to force CBE on everyone, whether it's appropriate or not, solely in order to make a profit.

    2. Rebecca, I do understand the issue and am as disgusted by profit driven motives as you are. I was just pointing out generalizations are often damaging because they target an entire concept rather than going after the specific examples, as Peter and Diane Ravitch so often do.

      I know that it's easier to just say Charters or CBE rather than profit-driven Charters and CBE that treat every child like a part on an assembly line, but tarring ever every Charter or use of CBE with the same evil brush punishes the good with the bad in the eyes of the public.