Sunday, June 3, 2018

Progressives and the DeVosian Embrace

In yesterday's New York Times, Conor P. Williams tackles one of the thorny problems of current reformsterism-- how do you hold onto some of your favorite charter school narratives now that the odious Trump and troublesome Betsy DeVos have planted their flag in your territory.

It's a good question, one that alleged Progressives have had to wrestle with ever since the last election stripped them of the cover of a nominally progressive President. But Williams' answer is lacking.

This guy. Yes, he has kind of a Kirk Cameron thing going on.

That's not surprising. Williams is a youthful PhD serving as senior researcher in New America's Education Policy Program. New America is a thinky tank with ties to Google, and they like school choice. Wiliams' PhD is in government from Georgetown, he writes for folks like the 74 and the Daily Beast. His bio usually touts his years teaching first grade in Brooklyn; you will be unsurprised to learn that he put in two years with Teach for America at Achievement First's charter school in Brooklyn. He has a specific interest in dual language learners, which is probably part of what led him to Hiawatha Leadership Academy, the school that he features in his NYT piece.

Williams shows his bias right off the bat, saying that Hiawatha runs "some of Minnesota's best public schools for serving such students." The link takes you to a six-year-old article, and as usual, "best" doesn't mean anything except "high score on the Big Standardized Test." And Hiawatha does not operate public schools-- it runs a charter school chain, and charter schools are not public schools. Calling charters "public" schools continues to be a way to obscure the problems of a privatized education system while giving charters the gloss of public school values which they do not possess. If "financed by public tax dollars" is the definition of "public," then Erik Prince operated a public security company and most defense contractors are public corporations. Charter schools are not public schools; their leadership is not publicly elected, their finances are not publicly transparent, and they do not take every child that shows up on their doorstep (which is one way they are able to achieve outstanding test results).

Williams point is that lefties should love Hiawatha because it's helping low-income children of color succeed. But there's the whole charter thing:

Progressives have long been open to research suggesting that well-regulated charter schools can extend educational opportunities to historically underserved children. But many also worry that charters foster segregation, siphon funding from traditional public schools and cater to policymakers’ obsession with standardized tests.

Williams' phrasing signals that he knows the research is pretty weak sauce. And he is correct to note one of the problems with the charter savior narrative-- what is the cost? Doers "saving" mean that we sacrifice a full education so that poor kids can be hammered with test prep every day? And do we "save" ten children by stripping necessary resources from 100 others?

And the new big problem, notes Williams, is that the embrace of Betsy DeVos, who loves choice and charters (although I'd argue that she loves charters only insofar as they help prepare the ground for vouchers) makes it hard to support charters and be a progressive.

Now let me take a side trip here. I'm not very concerned about political labels. I loathe the proicess by which we say, "Your position on cheese doodles shows that you're a mugwump, therefor you must be against water polo, because that is the mugwump position." Believe what you believe, support what you support, and ignore the labels-- that's what I'd prefer. But the story of school reform in general and charters in particular is the story of a conservative policy trying to masquerade as a bipartisan movement. Folks love to connect charters to Albert Shanker, the teacher labor leader, because it gives charters a lefty shine-- but Shanker's idea of charters was something else entirely, and when he saw what was happening, he turned his back on the whole thing. Charters couldn't really get going until neoliberals pretending to be progressives showed up, providing cover for privatization of public education by wrapping it in lefty language (and yes, some people did and do believe what they were saying, I know). As Wiliams puts it, "during the Obama administration, tensions over charter schools among progressives were manageable." The advent of Trump and DeVos just screwed up that whole game.

Williams tries to recast this as a personality thing-- Trump and DeVos are so "disliked" that some liberals "automatically reject" their ideas. What he doesn't is address is any of the substance of the arguments against (or for) charter schools and the privatization of American education.

Williams makes a case for Hiawatha, and captures the problems within the school in the Trump era (what does one tell a mostly no-white class of fourth graders when they ask "what does Make America Great Again mean?"). But what he doesn't address is the question of what the real nature of Hiawatha's "success" is, and what it costs (hard to do since they haven't graduated a class yet). Is there anything to learn from Hiawatha, or is the lesson here the same old one-- that with a more selective group of students and a bunch of extra money, you can accomplish more in a school?

Williams also tries to draw some sympathy for charter school teachers.

This puts the country’s many thousands of charter-school teachers in an odd place. Most come to this work to provide underserved children with a better shot at educational success, but now they’re increasingly branded as corporate stooges selling out public education by critics who challenge charter schools’ right to exist. These teachers shouldn’t have to answer for Ms. DeVos’s incompetence or wonder if there’s room for them in the future of progressive education politics.

This strikes me as a bit disingenuous. First, I don't know anybody who calls charter teachers "corporate stooges." In many cases, they are underpaid corporate victims, working without any job protections under lousy conditions for people who treat them like disposable widgets that must follow orders and stay in their place, or else. Second, many charter school teachers are not exactly teachers. Like Williams, they may be TFA temps who already know they're not sticking around for anything close like the five-to-seven years it takes a teacher to get really good. Or they are non-teachers in charters that are allowed to hire under special rules that allow them to put any warm body in the classroom. In other words, many thousands of charter-school teachers are already in an odd place.

And here's a pro tip-- if your plan is to "liberate" students by oppressing the people who work with them, you probably don't qualify as progressive.

Williams wants to argue that just because DeVos now wants to embrace charters, charter fans who came for the progressive argument shouldn't run away. But I'm not sure how many charter supporters were actually progressives, or whether progressives should have run away anyway (and conservatives, too, for that matter). Why isn't he exhorting progressives to throw their weight behind stronger support for public education? Should we be worrying about how well charters actually work instead of how they can best be lined up with one political agenda or another? Or should we start a discussion about the toxic effect of politics on education, with a eye toward getting politicians, amateurs, bureaucrats, dilettantes, and over-funded thinky tanks out of education entirely and hand it back to actual professional educators. There are a lot of questions worth asking hinted at in Williams' piece, but I'm not sure he really gets to any of them.


  1. Another thing Williams fails to do is explain why the things being done at Hiawatha couldn't be done at a district school. What do they do that's so special, and does it really require freedom from district oversight to do it? Implementing anti-bias, culturally responsive teaching? Actively recruiting teachers of color? Teaching students to construct good arguments in speaking and writing? Aren't there public schools doing these things? And if so, why is preserving the charter/public divide so important?

  2. Peter,

    I just went to the COMMENTS section of Williams' NEW YORK TIMES op-ed of which you are writing. Here's the latest:

    x x x x x x x x x x x x

    Toronto33m ago

    "This is what segregation looks like, and this is what its apologists do: if you refer to the State of Minnesota's official schools website, you will find that in 2017:

    --- more than 70% of Hiawatha Academies' students did not meet the state's science standards:

    --- 60% did not meet the standards for reading;


    --- 60% did not meet the standards for math.

    "If that is 'success,' according to the cheerleader-author of this piece, count me out."
    x x x x x x x x x x x x

    To read more of these, CLICK the 3-digit COMMENTS word bubble --- it last read (275) --- at the bottom of Williams op-ed here:

  3. Here's another good entry in the COMMENTS section that unpacks Williams' specious manipulation:

    x x x x x x x x x x x x
    Gregg Long
    Roselle, IL1h ago

    "Citing Valerie Strauss’ condemnation of Senator Booker, and then pivoting to all these charter school teachers who just want to do right by their kids is a feint. Strauss is quite correct when she points out how legislators have been empowering charters at the expense of the public schools, as was thoroughly documented by Dale Russakoff in 'THE PRIZE.'

    "That line of argument is focused on charter supporters and enablers, not the teachers.

    "It’s like when someone examines police shootings of unarmed black men, and then brings up Andy Griffith in Mayberry."
    x x x x x x x x x x x

    Again, CLICK the COMMENTS section balloon at the bottom the page here:

  4. Oh what the heck: here's one more from the COMMENTS section:

    x x x x x x x x x x x

    Chicago2h ago

    "I have consulted --- in curriculum and instruction --- in both charter and public schools. While I have admired the passion and idealism in some of the charters I have worked, I have been dismayed by educational impact of staffs that turn over too quickly, by the sheer lack of materials/facilities, and inexperienced leaders.

    "Few if any charters have the educational and economic firepower to compete with the average suburban public school. Even with the advantage of the ability to control who gets in and who stays, the public schools still do better educationally.

    "The single variable that undermines the educational mission of charters is their commitment to market-based decision making --- which, unlike public schools --- allows bottom line judgements override educational judgements.

    "Tax-supported public schools, are common-good-based, and thus, able to elevate best practice above the best 'low bid.'"
    x x x x x x x x x x

    Again, these COMMENTS are here:

  5. And here's a COMMENT from Tennessee:

    x x x x x x x x
    billy pullen
    Memphis, Tn3h ago

    "In this area, most of the charter schools are a joke.

    "I currently teach at an optional high school (aka magnet). We get dozens of transfers from these (charter) schools. Ninety per cent of these transfers that I have encountered know nothing. Many have written that most of their activities were playing on the computer and having substitutes more often than real teachers."
    x x x x x x x

    And here's another from Florida:

    x x x x x x x

    Florida3h ago

    "As a 20+ year educator, who has worked in both public and charter schools, one problem I see with charters is the inconsistency, both across different schools, and within the schools themselves.

    "There is wide disparity in the quality of charter schools, both from school to school, and within the same schools year to year. Charter schools typically have lower teacher pay, worse benefits (if any), and lack access to union membership, which deters many quality teachers from wanting to work at them. While there are some excellent teachers at charter schools, there are many others who lack the credentials required by law for public school teachers.

    "Oversight for charter schools varies from state to state, even even from school to school within a state. Some charter schools are overseen by the same school boards that govern their county public schools, while others have their own board of directors.

    "At the small, charter school where I worked, the school board members changed regularly, and it was often difficult finding people willing to serve on the board. The 'chain of command' was short and narrow, making it difficult for parents or teachers with concerns to have their problems addressed, especially if the concerns was with the principal.

    "My advice is that if you enroll your child in a charter school, be particularly vigilant."
    x x x x x x x

    And finally, here's one from Michigan:

    x x x x x x x x
    Alpena, MI4h ago

    "We in the Betsy DeVos state may have some insight on this.

    "We have really good charter schools and some terrible ones, ditto traditional public schools. Overall the academic performance of charters is about the same as public schools: overall 'poor' would be a good summary word.

    "We have overall declining enrollment in our schools, especially in rural areas; we don't make babies in the numbers we used to. We should be consolidating and reducing the number of schools we support with taxes, instead we're expanding the number of schools we support with scarce tax dollars and wasting enormous amounts on management and administration for new charter schools.

    "Nearly unfettered charter school expansion has not been good public policy in Michigan."
    x x x x x x x x x

    Again, all these comments, and more are HERE:

    x x x x x x x x

    Oh, just watch the John Oliver's classic and foundational piece on charter schools:

  6. This will be the last COMMENT that I move over --- and it's from a published author, no less:

    x x x x x x x x x x
    Barking Doggerel
    America5h ago

    "As an educator and author of 'FIRST DO NO HARM, PROGRESSIVE EDUCATION IN A TIME OF EXISTENTIAL RISK,' I object to much in this column.

    "Williams bandies about 'progressive' education without knowing what it is. Hiawatha (charter) Schools are not progressive. They are diligently preparing children for the tests which ostensibly prove their worth.

    "That is anti-progressive.

    "He also notes that 'nine out of 10 Hiawatha students are Hispanic,' while elsewhere denying that school 'choice' is leading to more segregation.

    "Strange that.

    "The use of specific charter school anecdotes to prop up a generally destructive era of so-called education 'reform' is a tired trick. As a progressive educator, I find the testing and accountability culture to be damaging, not productive. While charters broadly do not produce better scores, it would mean nothing if they did. From a child development/neurobiological perspective, they do most things wrong. Nearly all practices designed to improve test performance are educational malpractice - yet that's what the data collectors have created.

    "DeVos is incompetent and ineffective. If this inadvertently slows the ed reform train, it will be the only decent thing she will have accomplished."
    x x x x x x x x x x

  7. Okay, I changed my mind.

    Here's another COMMENT, one that really nails William's (and other) pro-charter pieces. It creates a four-point checklist that I'll be using forever after when reading pro-charter pieces, and op-ed's:

    x x x x x x x x
    Christian Haesemeyer
    Melbourne11h ago

    "All the pro-charter articles in the press (and there's many… so many) share certain fundamental features:

    "1. A well-performing example is held up as a prototypical example. For charter pushers, everyone and every school can be above average.

    "2. The self-selection effect of charter schools (or any 'school choice' schools) compared to default neighborhood public schools is ignored.

    "3. It is simply assumed that charter school teachers are there because they somehow prefer not being unionized, and prefer teaching in charter schools. No evidence for this assumption is provided.

    "4. Claims by charter networks regarding their motivations are taken at face value and never questioned.

    "Similar claims by charter opponents are routinely dismissed and it is presented as self-evident that they must be motivated by greed/ideology/a refusal to contemplate change."
    x x x x x x x x

    Oooh, snap!

    And finally, here are a couple "Follow the Money" posts, which disclose who's paying Williams to write this tripe:

    x x x x x x x x x x
    Christian Haesemeyer
    1h ago

    "It might have been ethical for the Times to disclose that 'New America' - where the article's author works - receives significant funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which, as you point out, also provides major support to the Hiawatha Academies.
    x x x x x x x x x x x

    x x x x x x x x x x x
    Make America Sane
    NYC1h ago

    "How much of a tax deduction do the Waltons get for their contribution?? Very interesting information -- simply again demonstrating.. how ridiculous as well as discriminatory our tax laws are. (Would they donate after tax $$? I am totally NOT in favor of tax-deductible donations.Donate by all means -- my $ a day donation to a homeless person is not deductible. ;-D) and so interesting-- impossible to donate/recycle books.... these days. (But lots of institutions want $$ so they can buy books and pay their CEOs -- Enuff.)
    x x x x x x x x x x x

  8. I'm really impressed with all the articulate and knowledgeable people commenting on Williams' article.

    Here's another:
    x x x x x x x
    R Mandl
    Canoga Park CAJune 2

    "The Los Angeles public high school where I teach English has the highest number of student newcomers to the US in the district. Because of their limited English skills, they don't score well on standardized tests, the be-all-end-all for school measurement and funding. But we still test them, because it's the law. We are constantly scrutinized for our 'failures.'

    "Our neighboring high schools are charters. They have some of the lowest numbers of newcomers. They limit newcomer enrollment, as well as special needs learners. These kids are unwanted at charters, because they don't test well. The charter scores beat the tar out of ours, year after year.

    "Upper class white and Asian families won't go near my school, because its scores are low...and its scores are low because upper class white and asian families won't go near my school. The inequity continues, because my school is fighting with one hand tied behind its back, courtesy of DeVos and 'Merican Education Inc.

    "Charters game the enrollment system because they can. They are a profit machine, plain and simple, and the reason that DeVos and Trump vilify and hamstring public schools is that they can't squeeze money out of them.

    "Limiting equal access to education--truly equal access--is anti-American. Our job as educators is to humanize young men and women, regardless of their skin color, language, or country of birth; I wish Betsy and Donny were in one of my 9th grade classes. "
    x x x x x x

  9. Oh my God, Peter, you need to add this ASAP to your piece above (in an ADDENDUM or something.)

    Williams despises Devos and spurns her embrace of charter schools, including the one which he celebrates in his piece ...

    ... but neglects to mention that the same Betsy Devos just wrote that same charter school a check for $1.8 million:

    Jennifer Berkshire caught that and tweeted about it:

    Here's Jennifer's source: (jog down this table to the line item on Hiawatha)

  10. There are two sides (excluding the $ chasers) to the charter issue:

    1) Engaged and supportive parents that want the best for their children. Inner city charter schools do, in fact, provide an alternative to the dysfunction and chaos of some schools that are overwhelmed by high needs students and chronic behavior issues. This is the side of the "individual good"

    2) The public school system charged to teach all children. The system intended to provide a common experience for Americans; a system that not only educates, but helps children grow and develop socially, emotionally, and as citizens. This is the side of the "public good"

    Progressives, pick your side. Politicians should all be compelled to pick Door #2.

  11. Not only does this oped by Williams cherrypick but it also compares apples to oranges; by contrasting statewide rates of teachers of color to those in one Minneapolis charter school. Williams writes: "more than 95% Minnesota’s teachers are white...Over quarter of Hiawatha teachers are people of color" Yet 27% new hires in Minneapolis are teachers of color. Also see this on disciplinary rates at this charter school:In 2016-17 Hiawatha reported 169 discipline incidents ...47 to black stuis dents & 127 to Hispanic kids... the discipline rate higher (14%) than at Minneapolis Pub Schools (10%) particularly for Hispanic & black students

  12. Off topic a little, but offered for consideration.
    It's labeled "dual language" when anglophones are offered the chance to be immersed in a second language, usually the non-English home language of many peers. But when no program is in place to benefit the anglophones, the bilingual peers become "those ESL kids". Hmm.