Thursday, February 28, 2019

OK: Voting With 60,000 Feet

Fans of market dynamics have a deep and abiding faith in the power of the podiatric plebiscite. When parents vote with their feet, schools will get better. Unions and minimum wage are not necessary, because if workers vote with their feet, employers will be forced to improve their offer.

And yet, we have Oklahoma and teachers.

The red flags have been numerous. The Oklahoma State School Boards Association has crunched some numbers. A massive increase in student population over the last twenty-five years. Spending far less per pupil than any states in the region, as well as the lowest teacher salary, which might explain the increasingly huge number of emergency certificates-- almost 3,000 this year, which as about 1,000 more than last year. The Network for Public Education gave them one of the worst grades for privatization in the country. And after teachers were pushed to the point of striking, some legislators thought the problem revealed by the strike was that teachers have too much freedom to speak.

But it turns out that the teacher walkout was even bigger than reported.

The 2018 Teacher Supply and Demand report has just been issued, and among the pages of information is a stunning data point-- over the last six years, 30,000 Oklahoma teachers have walked out. Over six years, Oklahoma has lost 30,000 teachers. To put that in perspective, there are just under 42,000 teachers in the state.

The report considers many possible factors, and cites an interesting source-- an October 2017 survey of people holding an Oklahoma teaching certificate who were not using it. One third said a pay increase would be enough to tempt them back to the classroom, but two thirds said it would take something more. In Oklahoma, it's not just the low pay, but the low support, the low respect, and the ever-increasing workload.

But 30,000 teachers voted with their feet. 30,000 teachers walked away from the job. That's a lot of feet.

As I understand it, what's supposed to happen next is that the legislators and other leaderly types are supposed to meet market demand by improving their offer. And yet, we have Oklahoma's legislators.

I suppose there are some factors that could cause the market forces to malfunction, most notably people in charge who don't care whether they can hire and retain all the nest teachers or not. Or who want the whole business to fail, because then charters and vouchers and other reformy businesses would have a better shot at the plating field. Or who are just so hostile to teachers that they'd rather see schools collapse then give those damned teachers one more cent.

Whatever the case, Oklahoma is totally screwing up the whole market forces thing. Let's hope they figure it out soon.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

OH: Lorain Schools In State Of Emergency

The state takeover of Lorain City Schools continues to spiral out of control (if you are joining us for this ongoing mess, you can start the story here).

Here's what has happened in the last couple of days.

After announcing last Thursday that teachers at Lorain High School would have to reapply for their jobs, CEO David Hardy went on the television box to do an interview to try to-- well, it's not clear what he was trying to do. The video has a glitch in the middle, but there are a couple of points worth noting:

The interviewer explains the state-appointed job as a "dictator," and Hardy doesn't love the word, but he doesn't have a better one. I like "tsar," but that didn't come up.

The interviewer asks some fine questions, like whether the selection process is just a way to get rid of all the high-cost teachers. Hardy says, kind of, that it's not.  The interviewer also brings up the 98% no confidence vote from the staff and asks, in effect, doesn't this indicate you have some problems between leadership and your people, to which Hardy replies, "I don't give a shit." Okay, I'm paraphrasing; the reformspeak version he uses is that he's here to just focus on the students and that's what he's going to focus on. This is not a great way to run a-- well, anything.

Hardy does finally answer the question of whether people can lose their jobs over this-- the answer is "yes." And he tries to expand the criteria beyond the original "prove that you'll be supportive of my vision for the district." But mostly he waffles and gives answers that aren't actually answers to the question that was asked.

But none of that actually matters because--

Tuesday, Hardy announced that the whole "reapply for your job thing" was off the table.

I left our conversation Friday deeply moved by your statements. Your statements expressed a number of emotions, valid points, and perspectives. I was encouraged by the dialogue. I have also been in consultation with our State Superintendent, Paolo DeMaria. I want to reconsider how best to achieve the excellence that I know is possible at Lorain High School. For that reason, I will suspend the selection process previously announced. I created a very different understanding of what I was intending to accomplish, and I apologize for that. Suspending the process will allow us to collectively and collaboratively identify and implement the changes necessary to ensure our scholars succeed.

He also allows that he expected a round of absence in response. Then he sort of loses control of the whole language thing:

I will be the first to tell you that I take decisions like this seriously, but I take your words equally as serious. Our scholars deserve the best from all of us, something that can only happen with your voices at the table. My ask of you is that we continue our conversation and come together around solutions to create the Lorain High we all want. One that is full of love and high expectations for scholars, teachers, staff, and leaders alike; one that is focused on our kids and the well being of all; one that raises our collective belief in what is possible; one that is led by a solution-orientation that suspends disbelief; one that allocates our energy on positivity ; one that leads us to a level of collaboration that will bring us to what is truly possible for all of our scholars.

If one things is clear, it's that Hardy loves sweeping visionary-ish prose more than he loves actual specifics.

Was this a win? Did he blink? Did somebody in Columbus tell him to get his house in order? Board President Mark Ballard has a theory:

“The big story is the big boys down in Columbus called him and said, ‘You’ve got to fix this now,’” he said. “They know he’s out of control, as we do. Now he apologizes and said he changed his mind.”

Maybe, but I find the change of course pretty disturbing, because it indicates just how little thought went into the original proposal.

Look, if someone is going to use the nuclear option in any situation, I actually want it to be a little difficult to talk him out of it, because that at least means I'm dealing with someone who's thought long and hard about what he's doing. If he can change his mind quickly and easily, that means he pulled that nuke out on a thoughtless whim, and that's scary. Either Hardy didn't understand the enormity of his decision to make everyone at the high school reapply, or he just didn't care, and neither one is very comforting going forward. Remember, ten days before he dropped the bomb, he assured the union everyone's jobs were secure. My initial reaction was that ten days prior he just plain lied, but now it seems possible that he really didn't know what he was going to do. A guy who can make decisions this large with such little refection doesn't belong in charge of a lemonade stand, let alone an entire school district. It's also possible that big boys in Columbus did call him on the carpet, which means this is not his idea and everybody had better watch their backs-- a former Hardy co-worker has told me that he can be "as vindictive af." If these folks have made him look bad in front of his bosses, he will be stewing. (There is one other even worse possibility-- that every step of this has been a plan to kick the teachers in their collective guts to say, "Do I have your attention now?" But that would mean Hardy is a sociopath of frightening proportions, so let's assume that's not it.)

However, the community was already primed for a meeting last evening, and so the Academic Distress Commission (well, part of it) and the school board and a few other dignitaries and lawyers and a whole lot of community members gathered in the "media center" (that's "library" for you older folks) to share alarm over a variety of issues. Then they declared a state of emergency for the Lorain City Schools. After that, a whole lot of folks stepped up to the mic to express concerns while other folks chimed in on Facebook Live (you can find the video at the bottom of this story.)

What does this formal resolution proclaiming a state of emergency actually do? It's a good question; it would seem that what the folks want most immediately is to have their school system back, and under HB 70 that's not going to happen. It's also fair to note that, as several on-line commenters have pointed out, the district wasn't exactly going great guns under previous management. However, there's no sign that a state takeover is working, at all.

You can say that the principle of state takeover is sound, and that the problem is that the state made a Very Bad Hire in David Hardy. I don't think that's true. Yes, Hardy is really bad at this job. But I'm trying to imagine what someone who was both good at it and willing to take it would look like, and I don't think it can be done. Ohio has created a terrible job that can't be done-- come into a community from outside, strip people of their representative democracy, take over one of their most beloved and valued community assets, make them like it, and operate a large multi-faceted complicated organization that runs on a myriad of relationships that the state kicked in the face just by sending you here. This is already an impossible job, and when it's created by a reform-minded state like Ohio, the assumption is that the tsar should be an outsider who lacks the training and experience to have any idea how to do it. David Hardy is a terrible choice for this job-- but he's exactly what the people who created this job had in mind.

Meanwhile, there are more developments to watch.

The state is sending another head for the academic distress commission (the mostly-state-appointed group that now theoretically is responsible for the school system). That guy is Dr. Randall Sampson, and he, too, is steeped in reformy baloney. He spent one year in the classroom, a few years in administration, and a whole lotta years in consulting and running a school turnaround business that he started. And he's a big fan of some Common Core standards based data-driven value-added stuff. If Lorain is hoping the ADC will now be run by someone who will rein in Hardy--well, I would not bet the farm or any of the dirt on it.

Annnnd then there's this. I'll do a capture of part of the page because presumably it will update with time, but what we're looking at is nine want ads for teachers for Teach for America in Lorain, most with an application deadline of March 1st.

Stay tuned.

Monday, February 25, 2019

FL: Further Dismantling Public Education

Here are two not-entirely-academic questions:

Is it possible to end public education in an entire state?

Can Florida become any more hostile to public education than it already is?

Newly-minted Governor Ron DeSantis and a wild cast of privatization cronies seem to answer a resounding "yes" to both questions.

But how would you do it? What resources would you need? What tactical moves would you make? Well, as always, there's more bad education news in Florida than you can shake a "Swampland For Sale" sign at (the Tampa Bay Tims is now doing almost-daily education update columns). Remember-- Florida already has a head start with more vouchery choicey baloney than any other state, by far. But here are a couple of trends that point us in toward further privatization.

Fresh Astro-turf

Since at least the days of Governor Jeb and FEE, Florida has been fertile ground for growing well-heeled, widely-connected fake grassroots groups, and Florida's favorite face of privatization is back with yet an other group. The group is School Choice Movement, and the face is Erika Donalds.

The group launched at the start of this year (you know-- concurrently with DeSantis's term). Donalds is the lead on this group, but it also includes Shawn Frost, who graduated from Eastern Oregon University in 2006 with a BS in Experimental Psychology and a minor in philosophy. Then he picked up an MBA from Florida's Nova Southeastern University (website text- "Prepare To Dominate") and then he taught high school science for just two years at Sebastian River High School, a high-rated IBS school. There he did things like "leveraged personal network to create 'wow factor' learning experiences" and "conducted customer focus groups and survey research on student motivators and created a 'meritocracy based' incentives program." And then he got out of the classroom and back into corporate marketing work, got on a school board in part with help from Betsy DeVos's American Federation of Children and DeVos herself (this was in 2014), and from there moved to Erika Donalds's "alternative" school board group, the Florida Coalition of School Board Members. He fully intended to leap from there to the Florida Board of Education. He's also a senior strategy consultant with MVP Strategy and Policy, a group that can, among other things, "make you profitable/well-known and profitable." They also specialize in helping with school board races. Frost once taught a class based on The Art of War. I find no evidence that he was TFA, but he certainly fits the profile, and he does love to say that he was a classroom teacher (without mentioning that his "career" lasted two years. And I can report first hand that he has a feisty Twitter style.

Also in the group is Scot Shine, "named by Jacksonville Magazine as one of the First Coast's most influential people." He's also a marketing and politics guy who served briefly on a school board and joined the Donalds upstart group.

Donalds is a Tea Partier who used to be an investment banker in New York. Now she is a well-connected player in Florida. Her husband Byron Donalds is the legislator who gave Florida the law that says all textbooks must be "balanced" and that any taxpayer can challenge course content. Donalds is buds with Patty Levesque, the woman who has been Jeb Bush's right-hand woman on ed reform, and FCSBM includes other well-connected players. In the interest of space, I'm going to skip over the many Florida power couples in which he writes laws about education and she runs a charter school. Donalds landed a seat on the Florida Constitution Revision Commission, from which she helped launch Amendment 8, a three piece amendment that would have added civic education, term limits for school board members, and-- oh, yeah-- also a part that eviscerated school boards and allowed charters to do an end run around local voters so they could pick the taxpayers' pockets. The attempt to just kind of slip that last part past everybody helped kill Amendment 8 in court.

These three are the guts of SCM. The group's advocacy priorities are-- well, they're Amendment 8 without the civics. Term limits for school board members so they can chase pro-public ed people away before the gather too much power. Transportation innovation and funding-- because charters could recruit better if someone else was footing the transportation bill. Education scholarship accounts-- Florida already has these super-vouchers, but SCM would like to see them expanded to everyone. And charter independence-- because it sucks that charters still have to answer to elected representatives of the taxpayers who foot the bill, and charters would be much happier to not have to answer to anyone.

SCM is not thinking small. Combined, these policies would cut the throat of public education. Charters could soak the taxpayers for piles of money, and the only way school boards could relieve the pressure would be to cut public school budgets past the bone. This has been one of effective charter marketing tools in Florida-- hobble public schools so badly that charters start to look good by comparison.

Expanding Schools of Hope And More Vouchers

Of all the policies that pull back the mask of lies that (barely) cover some policies in Florida, nothing is more cynical than the so-called Schools of Hope.

The accountability wing of the reformsters has, mostly, that the purpose of evaluating schools is to get help to the staff, teachers and students . But Schools of Hope reveal Florida's school grading policy as a jackal's method for targeting the weakest members of the herd. Schools of Hope unmask Florida's school grading system as a marketing tool for privatizers.

The principle is simple. Use the grading system to identify schools that are having trouble aka schools that have beaten down enough that charters are starting to look good to the families who attend. Then let charters set up shop right across the street.

There is no fanciful spin that could make this look like a policy that will help or improve struggling schools. But then, that's what all this rhetoric about "putting children's concerns ahead of adult concerns" is too often about-- people who want strong public schools are just trying to save union teachers fat paychecks, and they should be happy to let the public system go down in flames. This will be a stronger argument the day a charter operator says, "Well, good business sense says we should close right now, but these kids are depending on us, so I guess we'll just lose money" or "Give us every kid you've lives nearby-- we don't care how much of a challenge they might be" or even when a legislator says "As long as there's one kid left in that public school, we need to make sure that school gets the best resources we can get to it."

Schools of Hope are a direct assault on public schools. And DeSantis thinks he's come up with a clever way to make more of them. Connect up Schools of Predators Hope to Opportunity Zones to the truckload of money being directed to Opportunity Zones, and you've got the gravy train running right to downtown Fat City. The governor will even throw in a pile of taxpayer money to help the Schools of Hope build.

Currently, just under 50 communities are eligible to Schools of Vultures Hope; the DeSantis plan would up that to just under 250.

DeSantis has also cleared away the obstacle of the courts for another reform dream. In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court found that Bush's voucher program ("Opportunity Scholarships") was unconstitutional. DeSantis has just replaced three of the five justices who signed that ruling-- and proposed the "Equal Opportunity Scholarship."  It's more vouchers, on top of the many vouchery programs Florida already has.

Redefine Public 

I've long said that charter school boosters insist on co-opting the word "public" as a marketing strategy, that they are trying to get families to ascribe certain characteristics to charters that charters simply do not have. Still, it seems curious that some charter cheerleaders are really, really adamant that charters are really public schools. After this piece ran at Forbes, the folks from School Choice Movement wanted to chastise me severely over this very point.

Then I read this editorial from the Tampa Bay Times- "DeSantis redefines public education"--, and while I may be slow, the penny finally dropped.

Yes, there are people who really think charters are public. There are those who co-opt its marketing power. There are charter operators who cynically choose "public" or "private" as it suits their purposes. But for those like DeSantis, the objective is to redefine the term.

He's made his redefinition clear-- "If the taxpayer is paying for the education, it's public education." Oddly enough, that is exactly the argument the School Choice Movement tweeted at me.

Note that this skips over who owns it, who controls it (and whether or not that who is elected), to whom it is responsible (if anybody), who regulates it (if anybody) and most especially who profits from it (answer: "Who cares as long as it's not those lousy unions and their lousy teachers").

Calling charter schools public creates a nice batch of smoke and mirrors, allowing DeSantis and his cronies to privatize giant chunks of Florida's school system while still proclaiming, "No need to worry. You still have public schools!" You could completely shift the education system to privately owned and operated schools while still reassuring parents, taxpayers, and, perhaps, courts, that you haven't done a thing because it's still all public schools.

It's not just marketing. It's stealing the Mona Lisa and hanging up a Polaroid picture of the painting in its place. It's kidnapping your spouse and replacing them with an inflatable doll. It is a gaslighting of epic proportions.

In the meantime, Florida taxpayers, you probably should not try to just stroll into the public governor's mansion you paid for or borrow one of those public vehicles that you bought for officials to drive around in (especially don't try to commandeer a public army tank). Instead, I would keep a close eye on your public schools while you've still got them. And if it's already too late in your county, don't be sad-- your loss of public education has at least made some of your leaders really wealthy.

And the rest of us need to pay attention, too. Remember-- Betsy DeVos is among the many people who think Florida is an educational exemplar.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

OH: Lorain CEO's Purge Announcement Raises Fury

Last Thursday night, David Hardy, the state-appointed takeover CEO for Lorain City Schools told the public that all teachers at the high school would have to reapply for their jobs.

If you want to read about how they arrived at this point, that story is here. This is just the next chapter in the story.

After telling the public, Hardy then sent a letter to staff (because when you want to drop this kind of bomb on your staff, you definitely want them NOT to be the first to know). It does not particularly clarify the action. Having created four categories for the schools of Lorain (because a good plan requires specialized new jargon) -- excellent, innovation, improvement and empowerment schools. No schools were ranked excellent, and only the high school was ranked "empowerment." Hardy has not made public the process by which these judgments are made, though they appear to be linked closely to state test results.

Why exactly do teachers need to re-apply? Per the letter:

"...because we know that transformations this large can only happen with a completely unified and committed team, we’re giving leaders at Empowerment Schools the autonomy to choose their staff. "

At the high school, that would be the team led by Executive Director Daniel Garvey.* Garvey is one of Hardy's hires; he graduated from Ohio State with a BA in International/Global studies then, spent two years Teach for America as an English teacher, then three years handling phone interviews for TFA, and six and a half years doing a variety of education-related jobs in the Dominican Republic. Now he's going to take point on deciding if the teachers of Lorain High should get to keep their jobs or not.

Because the corporate reform playbook says that school leaders should be like CEOs who get to pick their teams, even if that means firing people who know far more about the job than the CEO does.

But look at another line from the letter:

This means all teachers and staff members who wish to remain at LHS next school year will need to participate in a selection process to determine whether their experience, commitment and belief in the potential of our scholars are the right fit for the school going forward. 

Hardy's argument is that LHS has to break "patterns of low academic achievement stretching back many years," but he's not going to evaluate teachers based on their academic strength, their teaching skills, their content knowledge-- they are going to be judged on whether they have the right commitment and belief, whether they are, in fact, team players. Is this about the "no confidence" vote that 98% of the staff made public last week? The board vice-president and the teacher union president both think so.

The purge letter also has a paragraph encouraging "educators and staff who do not have a direct ort immediate impact by the process" to keep working hard. That is a bone stupid thing to say-- as if any teacher anywhere in the district could not be immediately affected that at any moment, the CEO could announce that they, too, must do a song and dance to keep the job they already have. Every person who works in the Lorain district is now affected. Only a deeply incompetent manager could expect otherwise.

The purge announcement comes wrapped in plenty of confusion. The letter itself sends mixed messages. "I have seen first hand how hard LHS teachers work every day to do right by their scholars" Hardy writes. And then, "I hope many will decide to be part of the selection process." That process is loaded with unanswered questions. Per Jay Pickering, union president:

They can’t tell you who’s interviewing people, what positions — when you put in your request to stay, there’s not ‘what am I going to teach.’ It was very vague as far as whatever this process is going to be. The only thing, and I made sure that I asked the CEO clearly, if throughout this process if a teacher’s not chosen, could they lose their job in Lorain, yes or no. And he just refused to answer the question.

But then, Pickering has no reason to listen to Hardy's words on the subject anyway-- just ten days before the announcement, Pickering asked Hardy to quell rumors in the district, and Hardy assured him that no teachers were going to be moved.  Now Hardy says that tenured teachers who aren't kept at the high school will be placed elsewhere in the district; he does not offer an explanation of how that will work for teachers who are only high school certified.

Hardy called teachers in for a two hour meeting on Friday to discuss the selection process, which apparently will start in a week. The meeting was billed as an announcement of Hardy's plan, but simply outlined him timeline. "It was a really bizarre meeting and he didn’t really answer any questions directly. There were a lot of tears by teachers today."

The process of announcing intent has begun immediately, as covered by the Chronicle-Telegram:

In an email shared with The Chronicle-Telegram, the district’s People Office sent staff an invitation to complete a “non-binding Declaration of Intent survey,” 6:15 p.m. Friday. Survey questions were not accessible without starting the application process, but the letter states those who wish to remain at the high school must “exemplify our district core values at all times; abide by the district policy, protocols, and identified expectations; abide by the district’s shared expectations outlined in The Lorain Way; uphold the expectations outlined in the Lorain teacher job descriptions; and believe in the limitless potential of all scholars.”

The invitation states “all staff” must submit the form, but only includes a link to the teacher job descriptions. The form is due March 1 and those who complete it will be contacted by a member of the People Office by March 5 to learn of the next steps and schedule a formal interview.

Hardy's public comments continue to be word salads of corporate gobbledegook.

“It was a conversation that we had as a team to talk about the future to give our teachers space to ask questions and think through things they’re grappling with and make sure they understand the process that ensued," Hardy said. "And to ensure we have a space to understand what challenges we’re facing and move forward.”


“We know that their lives and days are extremely busy, so we wanted to make sure it is something that allows them to showcase the wonderful things they already do and have conversations with the leadership team about being a part of this transformation,” he said. “Or maybe there are folks who decide they would like to be somewhere else in the district, then we would invite folks who are external to be a part of that selection process.

"But not until we have exhausted all of our opportunities to really talk to our teachers, to understand our teachers who are in this high school and ask them to be a part of what is necessary to move to the next level. At that point, our school leadership team will make decisions on who they would like to see be a part of Lorain High going into the 2019-2020 school year.”

It's an astonishing parade of baloney, and it makes me angry for the teachers of Lorain just to read through this. Though it appears that there may be nobody madder than School Board President Mark Ballard, who argues in a letter sent Friday that Hardy should have to reapply for his own job. Nor did Ballard mince words when talking to the paper.  

“Grades got worse, morale got worse, enrollment got worse,” Ballard said the district since Hardy took over 18 months ago. “… I think there’s probably about 60,000 people in the city of Lorain and he’s probably No. 60,001 that deserve that job based on how he’s been doing it.”

“What I think is he’s just going to go through his games,” Ballard said. “And the people who’s not buying into his program and dancing to his music, whether they’re right or wrong or whether they’re good at their jobs or not, he just wants them out of there so he can have additional puppets to do what he wants them to do.”

The state takeover of Lorain schools is turning into a clusterfarphegnugen of epic proportions. The idea of giving a CEO all the powers of a superintendent and a school board is a dumb idea. Giving that position to someone who lacks the experience and skills to even sort of manage it makes things exponentially worse. For Reformsters who think the corporate takeover CEO model has potential, Lorain is shaping up to be a model for how bad an idea that is, a sort of disproof of concept. We'll keep following this tale as we wait to see just how bad things can get.

And here's the next chapter.

ICYMI: So Long, February Edition (2/24)

Well, that just flew by. Here's a good batch of reading from the week. Remember, if it speaks to you, help it speak to somebody else.

Betsy DeVos vs. Student Veterans

By easing up on predatory for-profit colleges, DeVos has really stuck it to veterans trying to get an education.

TFA Celebrates New Research That Suggests That Corps Members Are Ineffective Teacher

Gary Rubinstein takes a look at TFA's odd choice of research to get excited.

A Teacher's Student Loans Were Forgiven. Then FedLoan Wrecked His Credit

An infuriating tale that highlights just how screwed up this loan program is these days.

This Personalized Ed Program That Was Supposed To Boost Scores Didn't Work 

Teach To One was supposed to totally work the personalized [sic] education magic. A new study says no, not so much.

Oakland Public School Teachers Are Striking Against Billionaire Privatizers 

Jacobin takes a look at the Oakland strike and the real issues driving it.

Are Texas Kids Failing, or Is The Staar Test Rigged?

Yet another Big Standardized Test turns out to be written at inappropriate grade levels.

Boon Or Black Hole: PA Private School Scholarship Program Considers Expansion

PA has its own tax credit scholarship program that is either awesome or disastrous, depending on whether you ask someone benefiting from it or anyone else. Now the move is on to make it bigger.

Kentucky Charter Schools Funding Shelved For Another Year

A recap/update on Kentucky's unique charter compromise-- they've created a charter law, but they won't fund it. That tradition will continue in 2019.

Charter Takeover In Atlanta Struggled

For the gazzilionth time, some school takeover experts discover that it's not nearly as easy to turn schools around as they said it would be.

P&G's Partnership With Strive

What does Cincinnati have to do with building the cradle-to-career pipeline?

I'm a Loser Baby, So Why Don't You Kill Me

Think you've read the last word on Don Jr's teacher comment. Read what Nancy Flanagan has to say last.

John White Speaks At San Francisco TFA Board Meeting

Why is the guy who helped trash public education in Louisiana talking to TFA on the left coast? Mercedes Schneider has your answer.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

TN: Market Forces Are Not Magical

Shelby County is running up against two of the fallacies embedded in most charter school policy.

One is the modern charter policy lie-- the notion that you can run multiple parallel school systems with the same money that used to run one system. The other is that charter systems don't need a lot of regulation because the invisible hand of the market will take care of it all.

Shelby County Schools in Tennessee has noticed that it has problems with both of those principles.

The issue was raised back in August when the board considered nine more charter applications-- which would have brought the grand total to 63 charter schools in the county. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson put his finger on the problem:

“No surprise, we have too many schools in Memphis,” Hopson said. “If you got 12 schools in a three-mile radius… and all of them are under-enrolled, we’re not serving kids well.”

Shelby County is home to Memphis, one of the great early charter playgrounds in a state that has always ridden on the reformster train. About 14% of students in the county attend charter schools, and that's enough to leave some schools feeling a financial pinch (the overhead of maintaining a building does not go down whether you lose one student or one hundred). That's also before we count schools being run by the state in the Achievement School District (a method of state takeover of school districts with low test scores).

Nor are the schools well-distributed. Check this map and you'll see that some neighborhoods have clusters of charter schools, while other areas of the county have none at all. It's almost as if market forces do not drive charter businesses to try to serve all students, but only concentrate on the markets they find attractive! Go figure. (Note: charters in Tennessee can be run by profit or non-profit organizations or, of course, non-profits that funnel all their money to for-profit businesses.)

The problem did not happen overnight-- a local television station did a story entitled "Charter Schools-- Too Many? Too Fast?" back in 2017. The answer was, "Probably yes to both." But it also included the projection that SCS would some day be all charter. It does appear that Shelby County is in danger of entering the public school death spiral, where charters drain so much money from the public system that the public system stumbles, making the charters more appealing, so more students leave the public system, meaning the public system gets less and less money, making charters more appealing, so students leave, rinse and repeat until your public system collapses.

Except that's a problem if some of the public system collapses in communities where there are no charter schools. This is one of the many great dangers of an unregulated charter system-- the charters can kill off the public system without actually replacing it, leading to a school system that only covers the most attractive parts of the "market." That's perfectly sensible business functioning in a free(-ish) market, but it's terrible education policy.

 Which brings us to this news:

Shelby County Schools is developing guidelines that would determine if a neighborhood has too many charter schools, addressing a longtime concern of school board members.

The charter school guidelines, called the Educational Priorities Document/Rubric in a proposed district policy on charter schools, would also prioritize what the district wants charter schools to focus on, such as early literacy.

It's a 21-page document, and it removes a considerable amount of the wild west from Shelby County's charter sector. It's the kind of policy that might help save the whole system for the families of Shelby County. Stay tuned to see if charters squawk and push back.

Charter Schools Are Not Public Schools

Modern charter schools prefer to attach the word "public" to their descriptions. Many of the charter advocacy groups include "public charter" in their title. And truthfully, there are no regulations attached to the term--any school can attach the word "public" to its title without having to worry about any sort of penalty.
So technically, any charter school can call itself a public school. Heck, any private or parochial school can call itself a public school if it's so inclined. But while modern charter schools are financed by public tax dollars, they are not truly public schools for the following reasons.
When City Paper recently reported on the salaries of DC charter teachers and administrators, it required extra digging to come up with the information because charter schools are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. In fact, City Paper reported that a teacher employed by the charter was not even allowed to see the salary scale for her own job. In 2014, when the New York state controller wanted to audit the books of Eva Moskowitz's Success Academy, the charter leader took him to court and won, barring the state from trying to see how public tax dollars were spent.
Public schools are required to provide a transparent look at their finances. At times, some outlets have gone so far as to publish the salaries of individual teachers, and that's perfectly legal. Nor are public school boards allowed to meet privately or in secret. Everything that happens in a public school is paid for with public dollars, and is therefor subject to public scrutiny. Charters deliberately avoid that level of scrutiny.
Subject To State Law
The details here vary from state to state (here's a handy chart for looking up your own state), but charter schools generally don't have to play by the same rules as public schools. Non-discrimination, health and safety, and school year length are often (but not always) exceptions--beyond the specific exceptions, charters operate as they will, and may in some states request additional waivers. So, for instance, many states do not require charter teachers to be certified. Public schools, meanwhile, must play by all the rules laid down by the state.
Student Population
Modern charter schools have a variety of techniques for controlling which students they serve. It begins with advertising, which signals which students are most likely to feel like the school is a good fit for them. Charters are not required to provide programs that meet all special needs; they don't necessarily turn those students down, but if a school tells you that they do not offer the program that your child needs, will you really enroll there? And while lotteries are supposed to select students randomly, lotteries themselves often require committed parents willing to work their way through the paperwork and bureaucracy, so that the system allows parents to self-select for providing the kind of support and commitment that makes students more successful.
Once the student is in the school, there are a variety of ways to nudge the child out. We've seen the "Got To Go" list at Success Academy;  families can be nudged out with repeated suspensions and disciplinary action.
Charter supporters note that some public schools, such as magnet or special program schools, do not accept all students either, and that is true. However, even if the child is not selected for the magnet school, the district is still responsible for that child's education and will enroll her elsewhere. If a student has severe special needs that the district cannot meet in house, the district must still assume financial responsibility for providing the child with an education at some specialized facility.
When students walk out the door of a charter school, they cease to be the charter's responsibility. But as long as a student lives within the public school's designated area, that student is the district's responsibility.
Local Control
Public schools answer to the public. They are run by elected school boards who must meet and take action in public. Charter advocates have expressed frustration with this system and even suggest that school boards be done away with. Many public systems have been attacked on this front, with their school boards thrust aside by state takeover or a switch to mayoral control. Such changes make those systems less public, and often are a step toward converting public schools to charters.
Charter schools could be operated by a locally elected board, but they almost never are. Instead, charter schools are owned and operated by private individuals or boards, sometimes located far away from the school itself. Sometimes control of the charter is separated from the community by a series of managerial handoffs--Group X technically owns and operates the charter, but they hire Corporation Y to actually run the school.
When municipal assets like water systems and parking facilities are handed off to private companies to run, we call it by its name--privatization. Turning a school over to a private company to own and operate is no different.
Why Bother?
Why do charter schools and their boosters insist on using the term "public"? Here's what Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, told Emma Brown of the Washington Post as he argued that charters are public schools.
And it’s a term that matters, he said: Americans have high regard for the importance of public education, and private schools carry connotations of exclusivity that don’t apply to charters.
In other words, "public" carries a host of connotations that are important for marketing purposes. Brown was interviewing Ziebarth in 2016 for his reaction to the National Labor Relations Board ruling that charters are private corporations.
We can talk another day about whether charter schools are helping or hurting, whether they're good policy or bad. What we should not need to discuss is whether or not they are public.
Originally posted at Forbes.

Friday, February 22, 2019

OH: Lorain, HB 70, And A Reformy Attack

I began my career in Lorain, Ohio, so the ever-spinning mess there is of personal interest to me. But it is also a picture of much of the damage being inflicted on public education in the name of reform. This is going to be a really long read, the longest I've ever posted on this blog, but it's a story worth telling, because here we find most of the problems of ed reform on display.

I: Lorain Back in the Day

I arrived in Lorain in the fall of 1979, fresh out of college and desperate for a job within 40 miles of downtown Cleveland. It was a rough start-- Lorain was the 16th interview I landed that summer, and August was ticking away. I signed a contract on Thursday. New teacher orientation happened on Friday. Monday was set to be the first teacher day, with students arriving to start the new year on Tuesday. But on Sunday, the union met and voted about 750-6 to go out on strike. The strike lasted for six weeks.

What do I remember about Lorain in 1979. A population of about 83,000 people (I had to write a report for grad school). Several auto plants. Steel plants. At least one ship-building plant. Of the 83,000 people, roughly 82,500 were blue collar workers, with a few doctors and lawyers thrown in. Lorain was a labor town; supposedly there was a city ordinance that fined anyone who crossed a picket line to scab.

My first teaching job was right about here.
Most of the things you would expect in a city of that size weren't there. Tiny newspaper and radio stations, because Cleveland was less than 30 minutes away. A stretch of one street displayed the vestiges of a downtown, but there was no real center to Lorain. Instead, there were blocks after blocks of neighborhoods, with a mom and pop grocery store on every other corner.

There was a reason for that, just as there was a reason that Lorain called itself an "international" city. Virtually every possible ethnicity was represented in Lorain. Having student taught in Cleveland Heights just seven months earlier, I was exceptionally on edge about racial tensions in a school, but Lorain Schools had remarkably little of that. I attributed it to the fact that everybody's parents worked side by side in the same factories. The only students who were held as outsiders in our school were the first-generation Latin students; I had students who had to translate for their parents in parent conferences, and students who did not speak any English themselves. Lorain has few native son or daughter success stories. Toni Morrison is from Lorain, but I didn't learn that till years later.

The reason, again, was the factories. The steel and auto makers had, from time to time, gone to small towns and villages to recruit large batches of workers. Whole groups of people moved to Ohio together, settled a neighborhood together, opened up a small grocery store just like home. There were some strip malls, but most of the big shopping was nestled between Lorain and its sister city of Elyria. Lorain is nestled against the lake, and some small parks there provided a lovely view. A section of the town, set against the Black River, was just a long long complex of industrial buildings, much of it the huge US Steel facility. The mascot of Lorain High School, where I taught, was the steelmen. In many ways, Lorain was more like a large small town than a small big city.

The school district had three high schools, seven middle schools, and some huge number of elementary schools. I taught juniors and seniors. A student who was often tired because he was working two jobs to pay for the lawyer he was using in the custody battle for his child. A student who dropped out to marry a guy older than I was. A student who interrupted a class to threaten to beat me, then returned at the end of the day to talk about what was really bothering him. The night my neighbors shot each other, alarming my downstairs neighbor so badly that she had a fatal heart attack.

Then, at the end of the year, the district laid off seventy-some teachers, including me (RIFfed, we called it in those days). At the time, it was a brutal blow at the end of a long year. But it turned out to be just as well

II: Tough Days Arrive

Within a year, I was watching an evening news series about five cities being crushed by the recession. One of the segments focused on Lorain. The Eighties marked the beginning of the rust belt, and Lorain was as rusty as any

In 2016, my wife and I made a cross country trip. I'd not been back to Lorain (no reason to-- I'd made no lasting relationships in my year, mostly because I ate, slept and drank my job), even though its a mere three hours away. The rows of factories are now rubble. My half-a-house apartment is now in a row of boarded-up empty buildings. The strip mall where I bought  albums, my first luxury purchase with my own teacher-pay money is empty. My old high school is a vacant lot. Lorain's population is now around 63,000, a loss of about a quarter of their population from the mid-70s.

The drop started quickly and continued relentlessly for years. The school district adjusted. The three high schools became two, then one. But the local economy was shrinking so severely that by 2013, the school district was the second-largest employer in town,  behind the hospital. By the 2010s, reportedly 90% of the student population was free and reduced lunch (the standard proxy for measuring poverty).

In 2007, Ohio created a new piece of turnaround legislation. The law created an academic distress commission, appointed by the state superintendent, the president of the school board, and the mayor of the city. ADC's were responsible for coming up with a plan. They could fire and hire administrators and create a budget for the district. Lorain fell under the control of an ADC in 2013, but despite the employment of snazzy consultants, things didn't seem to be improving. Some scores had started to creep up, but then changes in the state test-- and how harshly it would be assessed-- destroyed any forward momentum the district had developed.

It was several decades of tough challenges in the community and in the schools-- and then, in 2015, that state of Ohio stepped in again to make things even worse.

III: HB 70

If you look up House Bill 70, you find a fairly innocuous-looking piece of legislation. Its short title is "Allows school district to establish community learning centers." Keep reading, however, and you discover behind that cheery face the bill actually created a stronger mechanism for the state takeover of school districts.

Ohio's old law called for an academic distress commission, appointed by the state superintendent, the president of the school board, and the mayor of the city. ADC's were responsible for coming up with a plan. They could fire and hire administrators and create a budget for the district. Under HB 70, that changed dramatically. HB 70 is a corporate reformster's dream law.

Under the new law, the ADC was required to appoint a CEO to run the district. The list of "include but not limited to" duties of the CEO runs to seventeen items, and they include:

Replacing administration and central office staff
Assigning employees to schools
Allocating teacher class loads and class sizes
Job descriptions for employees
Setting the school calendar
Setting the district budget
Setting grade "configuration"
Determining the school curriculum
Selecting instructional materials and assessments
Making reductions in staff
Establishing employee compensation

The law is nuts; it establishes the CEO as an unchecked tsar of the district with all the powers of both the superintendent and the school board. The only job requirement under the law is "high-level management experience in the public or private sector." So he could be an education amateur. But that's not all.

The ADC must also expand "high-quality" school choice options in the district. They may appoint a "high-quality school accelerator" as an independent entity to oversee the non-district schools, including getting underperforming schools up to speed, recruiting "high-quality" sponsors, attracting new "high-quality" schools to the district and increasing the overall capacity of these schools to deliver "high-quality" education. Please note the the "high-quality" quotes are not mine, but come from the state's write-up of the law. That write-up also notes that "high-quality" is not defined by the act.

And if a building in the district keeps producing low scores within two years, the CEO can convert it to a charter.

And as one more indignity-- remember that the state had changed both the Big Standardized Test and the rules governing it? HB 70 acknowledged that by granting a waiver for most school districts in Ohio. But not Lorain.

IV: Here Comes The Tsar

Only two districts were initially under the HB 70 gun-- Lorain and Youngstown (East Cleveland is now also facing takeover). Lorain was officially under the new for the fall of 2017, and the search for a CEO for the city schools was on.

Immediately, there were questions. The duly-elected, but now essentially powerless (except for one thing, and we'll come back to that later) school board demanded information about the search process, conducted by Chicago-based Atlantic Research Partners with little-to-no transparency. ARP was co-founded by Joseph Wise, after he was fired from the superintendent post in Duval County, Florida for "serious conduct" deemed "injurious" which included "not communicating or acting in good faith with board members during budget discussions.” Wise also owns Acceleration Academies.

Of the five finalists, ARP had connections to four. One of the four was connected by virtue of attending the National Superintendents Academy, another property that Wise bought up. The National Superintendents Academy was previously known as SUPES Academy-- a name you may remember from the massive scandal involving Barbara Byrd-Bennett and her federal indictment for bribery in Chicago. The twisty background is laid out here, but it underlines another aspect of the reformster world-- multiple connections and always failing upward.

The National Superintendents Academy graduate was David Hardy, Jr., and his resume is loaded with reform credentials.

Hardy grew up in West Chester PA, the son of a teacher. He studied business at Colgate, but says an internship changed his mind about that. After graduating from Colgate with a BS in Economics and a secondary concentration in education and English, Hardy headed out for-- what else-- a Teach for America gig in Miami-Dade schools teaching reading and writing to 6th and 7th graders. After two years of that, he became the Miami-Dade Madison Middle School Language Arts Chair, where he took credit for raising the school's grade from F to C. He ran a TFA summer institute, worked as a curriculum support specialist, and then went to work for Achievement First as a Dean of Students, consulted for the Children First Network, and then became the founding principal of Achievement First East New York Middle School. Then Chris Cerf tagged him to become the executive director of one of the seven Regional Achievement Centers in Camden responsible for the turnaround of thirty schools. Then chief of academic supports in Philly, then Deputy Superintendent of Academics in St. Louis Public Schools (where they have problems of their own)-- his longest time in a single job, at a whopping four years. Hardy graduated from Colgate in 2003.

Along the way he picked up a Masters degrees in education administration, plus a masters and doctorate from Columbia in urban education leadership. And he was selected as a Future Chief by Chiefs for Change. And he's connected to the Pahara Institute, which is connected to Aspen.

So how'd he do in his sprint-through of these various jobs. Well, when he turned up in New Jersey in '13, a commenter at the Jersey Jazzman blog said he was a former employee of Hardy and offered this about his time at Achievement First

As principal of the charter school, Hardy systematically coached low performing students out, denied special ed students their mandated services, spent over $40,000 on a fancy trip for his favorite, high performing students while the school was understaffed, and often tried to ensure that teachers weren't paid their full due. He loved to say "This is a not a job, it's a mission". So . . . even though he made over $150K, he tried to pay one first year teacher $25K. Despite the fact that the pay for first year teachers at this charter network is 48K.

And this--

However, he spent the vast majority of his time in his office, and refused to interact with children. He judged teachers on test scores alone, failing to take context into account. (He fired one special ed teacher because her scores didn't match those of mainstream students).

So yes, he has worked in schools. But, if anything, that only makes him more dangerous. He is very ignorant as regards to children with special needs (insisting that they simply need to "try harder"). Because he has experience in schools, he feels he is always right. He's not. He knows literally NOTHING about how children learn. Please don't be fooled by his "experience". I saw first hand how he spent his time in schools.

They got his name wrong, but here's a story about him screwing over an autistic student.

But the Fordham Institute, which is busy in Ohio, like him just fine. As I said, the corporate reformy establishment is strong with this one.

V: The Planning Plan

HB 70 requires the CEO to come up with a Plan within 90 days. Hardy stayed in St. Louis to wrap up a few things, but signed his contract with Lorain on August 8, 2017, and that date marked the beginning of his First 90 Day Master Plan-- the plan for a plan. Though the Master Plan unveiling occurred on August 10 of 2017, Hardy would arrive later. He stepped up his arrival in Lorain by a couple of weeks because he felt some sense of urgency after looking at the district, but it was still after the school year had already begun. I'm not sure who deserves the blame here, but that's just dumb. If you're going to change the entire direction of a district, would you not want to spend the summer getting your team in place, your plan ready, and your people trained and prepped so that you could hit the ground running when school opened. But in Lorain, the district would not just be building the plane while flying it-- the plane had already taken off and they'd be chasing it with a blimp so they could drop off the guy who would start shouting instructions for dismantling the plane and rebuilding it in transit.

Like all of HB 70, it smells like the corporate Visionary CEO model of reform (a first cousin of the Gifted Young Genius model of TFA). The idea is that the people who work in education are mostly bozos, and you just need a genius with a vision and the unrestricted power to implement it.

What vision did young wunderkind Hardy bring? His previous jobs were not much of a clue; most of his press in those places was the usual vague platitudes about high expectations and doing it all For The Kids. And being "more efficient with funds."

The 90 Day Plan is also a festival of corporate-speak. It open s with a letter from Hardy in which he tells his story, and talks about his positive, will do attitude.

I have never allowed “good” or “enough” to be in the same sentence. Let alone “impossible.”

Also, in Lorain his job will be "to enable greatness."

Hardy lists his core beliefs, which are "None of us are as strong as all of us," "a healthy disregard for the impossible," and "failing to plan is planning to fail." You begin to get a picture of this guy. The plan itself focuses on six components:

1) Learning. What are the instructional priorities? The concern here is that test scores are low. The goal: Create an instructional approach that empowers students to innovate, teachers to facilitate, leaders to support, and the district to coach schools to higher expectations for student outcomes. Expect your way to higher test scores.

2) Understanding leadership. The subtext here is that Hardy sees leadership problems in the district. But he's going to create a system of excellent schools with a performance management system that holds school leaders accountable for "outcomes" aka "test scores."

3) Understanding performance and growth. Test scores show too little growth. The plan here is to develop a "talent strategy" to "hire, develop, evaluate and retain" who "meet the demands" aka "get better test scores."

4) Equity. The "proficiency  gap" is large in Lorain, particularly for students with disabilities. So, make equity a priority and close the "opportunity gap," a term that Arne Duncan made up for talking about education for poor and minority students. Hardy's plan includes an item to "maximize philanthropic dollars" to help implement the "equity agenda." There's also "unpacking data" and other data crunching as if looking at test scores real hard will help fix equity issues.

5) Community. This is basically about getting a community council to nod vigorously and offer support and cover for an agenda aimed at an "outcomes driven" approach, aka "raising test scores."

6) Organizational culture. Hardy asks "How do we build a championship team?" Hardy went to college on an athletic scholarship, and he seems to be a fan of sports metaphors. Here he's talking about building a level of trust in the district (spoiler alert: this does not seem to be going well) and coming up with an "ongoing measure of organizational health and well being."

There are several things that jump out at me here. One is the tremendous focus on test scores. On the one hand, it's understandable because test scores are what got Lorain into this pickle in the first place. On the other hand, Hardy seems to have no sense of how a focus on test scores is brutalizing for a district. For one thing, it leaves a whole lot of teachers who don't teach tested subjects twiddling their thumbs like second class citizens.For another, it tells a whole bunch of teachers, "I know you went into teaching with a whole lot of big ideas about helping students and engaging young minds and opening growing intellects and all that fun stuff, but I'm here to tell you that your job is to raise scores on a Big Standardized Test. That's it." This does not get people excited.

There's also a disregard for what is actually going on in Lorain. As I've suggested in the history above, Lorain is a city and school system that has taken a forty-year beating. It's a city and system in need of healing more than it needs a swift kick in the ass. The plan feels a bit like sitting down with a woman who's been systematically abused by her husband for twenty years and opening with, "We really need to get you some new shoes. Those are ugly and impractical. Also, let's work on your posture. You'll never get a job sitting like that." You may not be wrong, exactly, but you're kind of missing the big issues.

Defenders of Hardy and the plan are going to accuse me of cherry picking and say that there are plenty of other things in the plan, or that this was just the plan for developing the plan, and that is correct. But here's the thing.

The plan, like much of Hardy's language over the years, is strikingly vague and unconnected to any specific realities (except for the parts about himself). I know I'm usually pretty careful about precise language, but Hardy's plan is striking for this particular style of omission. There's a disconnect here, the kind that usually means one of a couple of things. It can mean "I have some big concepts in my head, but no practical idea of how to make them work." It can mean "I am going to make the kind of word sounds that I know are correct, but I'll be acting a completely different way." It can mean "Prepare for a gaslighting of epic proportions." It means either "I have no idea what I'm going to do" or "I know what I'm going to do but I'm not going to be straight with you about what that actually is."

Because if you knew how to fill in those blanks, you would. If you were going to improve staff morale by taking specific sure-to-help actions, you would say so, because you would know that specific promises are the first step in improving relationships. You build trust by giving your word about concrete actions and then keeping your word. Before you put your money where your mouth is, you have to put your mouth some actual where.

If I had been sitting in a Lorain classroom in 2017, reading this plan, my thought would have been "Shit, we're in for it now."

Part of the plan included town meetings. One newspaper account offers more of the same. Parent and community concerns are very specific. What about streetcorner culture's influence on violence in the schools. Will the district hire more black teachers who can better relate to black students? Can school personnel be more responsive to parents?  Hardy's responses as reported are... not very responsive. He told a story about how some school staffs in St. Louis were not very responsive to parents.

Here's an exchange with one parent concerned about teachers who don't get it:

Students often survive a home life of no breakfast or lunch, watching younger brothers and sisters all night for a mother who never came home, and then being berated by a teacher for falling asleep in class, he said.

“I want to be careful about answering this question: How we understand our young people,” Hardy said. “There are ways we can help our teachers understand our young people.”

And at one point he offered this:

“Commercials are extremely powerful,” Hardy said. “Think about how long we’re with the kids as educators, and how long they’re out of the classroom. I’m not going to give you all of the bullet points of what that commercial message is now. But what is going to make them excited about coming to school every day?”

VI: The Lorain Promise

The result of the 90 day Master Plan was a shiny new strategic plan called the Lorain Promise. The rough draft was released in October of 2017, and by February, Hardy was presenting a five-step plan for construction on the plane.

The promise is laid out over eighty-plus slick, glossy pages. And yes, I've read it so you don't have to.

The Promise (Redreaming "Possible" in the Lorain City Schools) essentially follows the same structure and outline as the 90-day plan, in a way that suggests that the listening sessions, the meetings, the surveys, the focus groups, were more about PR than about actually figuring out a plan. From out here in the cheap seats, it looks as if David Hardy already knew pretty much exactly what he intended to do from the moment he set foot in Lorain. And much of what he wanted to do was straight from the reformster playbook.

There's some preliminary touting of the pre-work and opening with another personal message from Hardy. There's a page in of "what we heard" that renders some very specific public comments into corporate vagueries and ignores others; people, for instance, were pretty clear about their concern about violence in schools, but that concern isn't one that the planner "heard." Then the Promise states the problems that it wants to solve-- families engaged too late, opportunities too unequal, studen--excuse me-- scholars who don't go to college or succeed there, teachers who feel unsupported.

And no strategic plan is complete without a vision and core values. The vision statement is too long and too vague, and the six core values are an interesting mix-- scholars first, one for all, experience joy, expect excellence, collaborate with integrity, take pride.

After all of this throat clearing, the Promise gets down to five action areas-- "commitments."

1) Support the whole child beginning at birth. The "strategy" here includes creating school and community partnerships to support "scholars" from birth. "Congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Smith-- it's a 7 lb 6 oz scholar!" I'd always thought calling human children "scholars" was just a piece of marketing, but the Promise has me questioning just how dehumanizing it is to slap this label on a human children. This item also has the strategy of providing scholars with what they need to be healthy and present.

Finally, to get rid of barriers and build bridges between the school district and families, which certainly seems necessary if the district is going to showing up on Day One to "help" parents raise their children. The fuller explanation is a little vague-- more meetings at convenient times, solicit feedback, be more welcoming. As will be the case in many, many strategies in the Promise, much space is devoted to "here's why this is important" and not so much to "here is exactly the strategy we will implement." This is a reformy staple-- really hammer home the problem rather than explain why your solution will work.

2) Invest in our early scholars. Yes, this scholar thing is never going to let up. I think what bugs me most about it is that it reduces the whole human child to a single function-- learning stuff. In fairness, the copy also includes reference to "children" and the desire they be loved and supported.

The goals here include a third grade promise-- every child literate and numerate by third grade. Access to "high-quality" pre-K. And we're going to get them all "character skills" as well. So the Promise includes SEL, too. How will this feat be accomplished? The strategy is to work with teachers to make sure students have these skills. That's it. That's the plan.

3) Promote equity. Ah, the achievement gap. The Promise lays out the challenge here. All scholars will raise achievement, and the gap will close. That means the students who are "behind" will raise their achievement more than the students on the topside of the gap. Will they get better instruction? Will top-of-gap students be kept slower?

Strategies include closing the opportunity gap, which is somehow connected to high absenteeism in the district. When students feel supported, they'll show up. There will be internships and mentors and field trips. There will be culturally sensitive leadership and training. The Promise doesn't use the r word, but racism within the teaching corps seems implied.

Finally, restorative justice and positive school culture. Because Hardy acknowledges that discipline is an issue.

Oddly enough, there really isn't anything about academics under this commitment.

4) Create schools where adults and students thrive. LCS teachers do not feel supported, nor do they think professional development is any use (in fairness, this result does not seem specific to Lorain). So, we're going to define a vision for education excellence (many teachers don't think the district has one). The closest the Promise gets to articulating a vision here is to say they're going to analyze whether money spent on programs and instructional support is "resulting in better education." If not, get out the scissors.

Career ladders. Opportunities for leadership. Coaching. Recognizing teachers who get results. And we'll involve scholars in decisions about the school.

5) Prepare scholars for the world of tomorrow. There's an awful lot of fluff packed around this simple and familiar idea-- do extra work to get those math and ELA scores up. Throw in some vocational path touches and concern about getting more grads into and through college. Raise graduation requirements. It's a pretty pedestrian set of strategies, but the Promise dresses it up.

Is it a strategic plan? Not really, but then, strategic plans exist to satisfy bureaucrats and collect dust. So that's not necessarily an issue.

The Promise is a cornucopia of reformy ideas, floating on a fluffy cloud of dreams and unicorn farts. It also signals an intention for a tight partnership with the city; Hardy is not just aiming to be a school Tsar, but a co-mayor of the city and a major civic player. As we'll see, this is going to be doubly problematic-- first, because it's a ballsy move to declare yourself a big civic wheel, and second, because Hardy doesn't really intend to deliver on his ballsy declaration.

From the Lorain City Schools Website:

“The International City” is the home of the Lorain City Titans. We are a district that will disrupt the status quo for 6,700 scholars across 15 campuses in Northeast Ohio, just outside of Cleveland. To do so, we will transform the way that we look at educating our scholars, performing as leaders, and inspiring as people, all while having fun doing it. Lorain City Schools is one of two districts in the state of Ohio who have been granted the authority to redream what is possible for our young people with the passing of House Bill 70. This house bill empowers the CEO to improve district practices and operate with a level of urgency and purpose that is unique to traditional public school systems across the country. The district’s academic improvement plan, The Lorain Promise, outlines the ambitious yet obtainable outlook for Lorain City Schools with bold statements about how we will operate as a district and a community. This innovative new direction for Titans, will not only change the way we look at public school education, but seeks to set the new standard for what is possible when we put our scholars first.

It's like a big fluffy ed reform word salad.

VII: The Big Disconnection

Here's a thing I know-- a lot of people in Lorain are unhappy with how things are going. They have a whole facebook group, and I've got emails from them and, as we'll see, they aren't just fringy cranks.

Now at this point in the story, I could get into the whole list of complaints, many of which seem rather minor on their face. But underlying and connecting them are some larger issues which, again, seem rather emblematic of corporate reformy approaches.

It's not simply the hubris involved in this mega-turnaround approach to schools, this half-baked buckeye notion that one guy can come swooping into town and singlehandedly commandeer a school district, transforming it into a district of awesomeness. Add extra hubris if you think that magical guy can be someone with barely any school or classroom experience.

No, that's bad enough. But in this case, there is a really weird disconnect between Hardy's touchy-feely message of collaboratey teamwork and how he actually has conducted himself in Lorain.

One might have expected him to live in the smaller part of Lorain that's east of the Black River, where most of the nicer homes were located. But Hardy didn't settle in Lorain at all.

He told parents that he lived in Avon, town just up the road from Lorain, but in August of 2018, he bought a home in Lakewood, a town just outside of Cleveland, and so about a half hour away from Lorain. The topic came up at more than one town hall meeting.

Thursday afternoon, when questioned on why he said he lived in Avon, despite the Lakewood purchase, he said he was happy to answer questions on students, but not those based on his personal life.

“So when I come to school every single day, I focus on the academic outcomes of kids,” he said. 
“And that’s all I need to talk about, I don’t have to answer to adults about where I live. That’s very personal. So the job that I do is about kids. If there’s questions about that, we can talk about that.”

The next time the topic came up, he acknowledged that he expected it. And this is what he had for that forum:

“So in that sacrifice, I have a CEO at my home, which happens to be my wife and — exactly — happy wife, happy life,” he said. “And I like happy lives. And so at this point, I am cognizant that it is not about me, when I go home I am dad, when I go home, I am husband. And I want to go home to a place where people feel comfortable being where they are.”

He went on to say his decision to live outside of Lorain and not send his children to Lorain schools — his oldest son is of preschool age — is in part for their protection.

“They have no idea what daddy deals with every day,” he said. “And I would hate for them, even directly or indirectly, to have to see and/or feel any of that. So for the safety of my kids, and the well-being of my family, I want to make sure that they feel comfortable, and therefore that is why I unfortunately cannot live in the city of Lorain.”

I had a friend who took management classes who said they were told to live at least fifty miles away from the facility they managed, that living with the people who worked there would interfere with cool, clear managerial judgment. But there's a terrific disconnect in Hardy's managerial style. On the one hand, he wrote in an op-ed "I write today as a leader in the community and to the community I love." On the other hand-- he doesn't live there, and he doesn't think it's safe for his family to live there.

On the one hand, his plan is loaded with community building and community partnerships. But on the other hand, Hardy has had troubled relationships with many of the parties during his time. The school board was an early opponent-- not entirely a surprise given that HB 70 stripped them of all powers but one-- and they passed a unanimous resolution of "no confidence in March, saying that Hardy "has irresponsibly spent taxpayer money on administration and out of state firms and has made zero investment in the classroom." They have also complained about the lack of communication, information and cooperation. The board invited Hardy to meetings, but he declined, indicating that he doesn't have to attend board meetings because he doesn't answer to them. By November the board president was asking the state to investigate, listing fourteen separate bones of contention.

Things have only gotten worse. At the end of January, the school board asked Mayor Chase Ritenauer to call a meeting between Hardy, the board and the Academic Distress Commission. Ritenaur sent out a letter scheduling the meeting for February 26, and within four hours, Hardy had refused the invitation.

“With respectful understanding that Mayor Chase Ritenauer has submitted a request to bring all parties together, I am thankful for his leadership in doing so,” he wrote in a statement released through the district’s communications team. “But as Chief Executive Officer of the district, I am confident that the communication between myself and School Board President Mark Ballard has become the strongest and most consistent communication — between myself and any sitting board member — that has occurred during my tenure. It is with that confidence I believe we can, and will continue to, move this district forward.”

The mayor was apparently unimpressed by the non-response response.

“I didn’t ask about David’s relationship with Mark,” Ritenauer said after Hardy’s letter. “I asked for a meeting of all parties after School Board approval.”

On his Facebook page, Ballard himself seems puzzled:

I must admit that I am confused by Mr. Hardy’s February 13th letter to the Titan Community. In the first paragraph, he states that “with renewed hope and determination [he], CEO David Hardy Jr., [is] committed to working together with the Lorain City School Board of Education...” However, I interpret his second paragraph to state that he will only do that by having individual conversations with me and excluding the other elected members of the Board of Education. In addition, he will continue to refuse Mayor Ritenauer’s proposal to meet with him and all of the members of the ADC and Board of Education to work collectively on meeting the needs of our students.

My confusion lies in the fact that I have been very clear with him that I am only one member of the board of education and as such, I cannot and will not speak with him on their behalf. I have also been very clear on the fact that as a board of education and a community, we are unified with the Mayor in our approach to serve the children and families of Lorain.

You can catch some of the tension in this town meeting. Hardy is "looking forward" to a lot of conversations. Again, I'm struck by how the crowd is asking about nuts and bolts and Hardy responds with big fluffy conceptual stuff. This very brief video shows you two things-- one is Hardy scooting out of the meeting by ignoring that folks making one last attempt to ask him questions, and the other is the degree to which people are on edge, enough to label this relatively tame departure as further proof of his aloofness.

How messy have things gotten? After the meeting fell apart, the Lorain city council passed a resolution asking the CEO and the Board of Education to stop their public bickering.

There's more to this bad relationship with the board than just the notion that it would be nice if everyone could just get along. The elected school board still has one remaining power-- they are the group that has the power to levy a tax. Without their cooperation, Hardy gets $0.00 in new money (which may be why he made a point of announcing that his newest action plan can be achieved with no increase in spending). You would think the purse-string issues alone would motivate Hardy to get to a board meeting and make nice. But that hasn't happened.

Hardy delivers State of the School speech
And then there's the State of the District speech, a state of the union speech for the district usually delivered to live stakeholders. Hardy chose to deliver it by video instead. He opens with a football story about Clemson and their young, inexperienced quarterback, and segues to how it's his job to make the tough decisions. And then he delivers some vagueries sprinkled with names and anecdotes and some not good news. Low response on staff surveys. Absenteeism is up students and faculty. There's a problem with morale. Some of his talk is soaring on the page, but flat coming out of him. And some is dull ("Great teams make adjustments, not excuses") and some is clunky ("Things will happen.") Noting his disappointment with survey returns, he restates his commitment to engage, yet here he is, delivering this Gipper speech to a camera. He lays out plans for developing and addressing priorities, but this is his second year in the district. And... well, he's not good at this. It takes several separate cuts to get through twelve minutes. He does not project the charisma or energy to sell this, nor does he have the kind of concrete plan of action that sells itself. That in itself is no crime-- not every leader was born to be a youtube star or a riveting speaker. But it suggests a weakness in one critical area-- knowing how you do your best work.

In a separate interview with the 74, Hardy is unable to explain how he achieved success in St. Louis (literally "I wish I could put my finger on it"), but he offers an unusual view of how relationships are built:

Granted, I think we still could do more in St. Louis with accountability, but I honestly think there’s this balance between truth and honesty, and making sure you have relationships to guide that truth and honesty. I lean more on that truth and honesty, and all the relationships will [be built] after you win. Like any great team, winning makes everything a little bit easier.

I think that’s what I’ll bring to Lorain, is just an attitude of, “We’re going to do what’s best by kids first. We’re going to follow what the numbers say we need to do, and we’re gonna do it well and have some fun while we do it.”

Teach for America profiled Hardy and the town (and some other TFAers that he brought there). The article shows some sensitivity to the "rust belt town," but it's also heavy on the "teachers here just suck" narrative (in one more reformy move, Hardy brought in TNTP to evaluate the curriculum, work that I'm not convinced they have any business doing, but it gives Hardy just a few degrees of separation from She Who Will Not Be Named, disastrous former chancellor of DC schools).

The line that runs through all of this is a disconnect between what Hardy wants to envision and what he's actually doing. He wants to be the kind of important leader who can blow off a meeting with the mayor and other leaders, but he wants to live in another town and keep his own life separate from his work life. During the town meeting, he responds to a question about his possible departure (a reasonable concern, given his resume) and he asserts that Lorain is absolutely where he wants to be-- and yet he doesn't really seem to be there in any sense of the word. He uses language that acknowledges the importance of building relationships, but he hasn't built many. And if he's banking on those relationships just happening once the winning starts-- well, that seems backwards, and it's not going well.

There are a lot of complaints about him, and we'll get there, but I suspect that many of them would be unimportant if the city had taken him into its heart and he had really embraced the place as his own new home. But his overall impression is of a guy who's just passing through to fix this mess that You People made of things. And when you start from that place, every little misstep becomes a reason for someone to get out the tar and feathers. Every decision is one more paper cut.

VII: A Thousand Paper Cuts

I'll remind you that at this point, Lorain city schools have been through a ton of changes. In a generation, much of their institutional and city history has been bulldozed and abandoned. The kinds of things that many people in many towns take for granted ("Children, I can't wait till you are walking through the same high school halls that your mother and I graduated from") are no longer possible in Lorain. The job prospects are no longer there. They drive past the hollowed out remains of better times every day. The pride of a city where people from all ethnicities work side by side in the factories of the International City-- that's pretty beat up. It is reasonable to expect that the people of this city may have a few collective raw nerves when it comes to changing things around.

But then, some changes were simply handled poorly.

In the fall of 2018, the district changed from a traditional letter grading system to standards-based grading. This change was implemented halfway through the first grading period, and that involved scrubbing all previous grades from the digital gradebook (Power School or Power Teacher). This left some teachers with no record of the grades they had given so far. And on top of that, the district wasn't actually ready to move ahead with the standards based grading as an internal email suggested that the district was having trouble getting the online grading system to accept and operate with the standards-based grading system.

Standards based grading is, at first glance, a meaningless change. Students are scored with a 1-5 or a 1-3, so instead of A, B, C, D, or E, the student receives a 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5. The district's explanation is cursory, and doesn't really capture the extent to which standards-based grading represents a shift toward competency based learning. Standards based grading is about giving a student a separate rating for every single standard; the idea is to create a more detailed map of the student's progress. It also has the effect of nullifying factors like homework completion and other scores not directly related to the standards themselves. The set of standards adopted by a district are hugely important here (and if you're not an ELA, math or science teacher, you don't have a handy set already created for you).

We could spend a whole day here talking about standards-based grading and whether it's a good idea or not (I think not), but the bottom line is that it represents a major shift in how teachers approach their work. It is not just a new way to record grades. It is mind-boggling that the district tried to launch this after the year had begun rather than, say, starting major training for staff over the summer before the year began, coupled with major communication with families so that they could be prepared and make sense of the new system. But teachers expected a week of training before school started, and they didn't get it. Instead, they got about an hour's worth of training on September 11 (after students started on August 22).

The selection of turnaround principals has been contentious, with some chosen without even having the correct certification. [I am chagrinned to discover that I somehow dropped several paragraphs here. The short form is that Hardy chose several TFA hires as well as some folks who didn't have proper certification for their jobs.]

Communication has been an issue. Most of my emails from Lorain complain about a lack of communication with staff and parents. An attempt by a new ADC member to get certain documentation and data from the CEO has turned spectacularly ugly, with charges of insubordination and hatred and negativity flying back and forth. The chair of the ADC has resigned.

There have been minor flaps. A uniform policy was changed, and then changed again-- the second time after hearing parent and student reactions to the first change. And the location of commencement has been changed Wolstein Center in Cleveland, which has ruffled plenty of feathers. Hardy's explanation is that it's an issue of capacity, but it's hard to believe that the district needs to go all the way to Cleveland to find the space they need. And fights-- lots of student fights.

Hovering over all this-- at the beginning of their second year under state control, the district learned that their first year under state control had actually taken them further away from the success the state mandated.  And people are worried about the future of the district.

VIII: One Scary Item

The threat of charterization is part and parcel of HB 70. And if you're a teacher in Lorain, here is a pair of budgetary line items that is not very encouraging:

From the budget projection submitted in December of 2018:

Personnel costs cut by more than half, while purchased services rise steadily.

IX: And It Just Keeps Getting Worse
This week at Monday's board meeting, the head of the teachers' union shared a survey of the teaching staff; 98% of those who responded said they had no confidence in Hardy's leadership.

Hearing that, a leader might think, "Damn. I had better do some outreach and build some bridges with my people." That is not what Hardy did.

At Thursday night's town hall, Hardy announced that all high school teachers will have to reapply for their jobs. This is part of a larger plan that involves giving schools within the district a ranking based on their performance, with lowest ranking schools subject to Extra Special Treatment which, in reformster style, does not seem to mean support so much as extra "disruption." The reapplication piece caught teachers flatfooted, as Hardy did not choose to speak to staff about any of these changed before announcing them publicly. Nor has he explained the metric used in designating the high school an "empowerment school." It's a huge act of stunning disrespect.

As for the high school teachers, those with tenure will supposedly be reassigned to other schools in the district. How exactly that will work for teachers whose certification does not qualify them for posts outside of the high school is not clear, but as we've seen, details are not David Hardy's strong suit.

There will be a school transformation task force.

Union president Jay Pickering summed up the general tone of Hardy's town hall meetings:

“Every town hall, somebody leaves thinking they’re threatened,” Pickering said. “Whether it be a parent or students or teachers or administrators, it’s just sad that anybody would think this is a way to lead a large group of people.”

It's not entirely clear if this move is even legal. Oh-- and this is the last year of the current teacher contract. How much fun are negotiations going to be?

X: Wrapping Up and HB 70

I didn't set out to do a hatchet job on David Hardy and his administration, and it would be wrong to ignore the fact that he does have some support in the city. Some residents see the opposition to Hardy as racist, and at least one school board member has said that upon reflection, she supports the embattled CEO. It's a contentious mess. When the state took over, some folks were pushed out of positions of power, and it's reasonable to assume that they would not have been impressed if Jesus Christ Himself had taken over the district.

Certain phrases keep coming up in connection with Hardy, like "in over his head." He can talk a good game (watch this interview from his St. Louis days), but if leading in a city system like Lorain requires relationship-building, Hardy is coming up short. The latest bombshell is not only a slap in the face to staff, but was handled about as poorly as it possibly could have been.

But it's important to ask if HB 70 set David Hardy up for failure.

It's a bad law. It was slipped past the legislature as an amendment in a late-night smoke-filled room arrangement that guaranteed that it would not be publicly discussed. And it is most certainly a full-on assault on public education in the state.

Youngstown, Lorain and now East Cleveland have one thing in common-- they are among the poorest school districts in the state. As such, it's unsurprising that they would have low scores on the Big Standardized Test and therefor low grades for their schools. HB 70 targeted poor communities, and it didn't target them for help. It targeted them to be taken over, dismantled, and handed off to charter operators. The Lorain I knew has taken such a beating over the years, and HB 70 is the legislative equivalent of taking a beaten puppy and saying, "Look, dammit-- fetch now or I am going to give your food to a prettier dog."

Lorain needs help and healing. It does not need to have its teachers beaten down, its parents kept in the dark, its community held at arms length, its elected officials stripped of power. There is no special mystery to why Lorain's schools are struggling, but HB 70 doesn't address any of the root issues of a struggling local economy and a loss of resources. It is a law that punishes poverty rather than trying to ameliorate it.

I am trying to imagine what kind of high-quality leadership would make it possible to sell, "Hi! I'm from the state and I've been appointed to strip you of local power and chop your community schools up for someone else's investment opportunity. Also, all the bad things that are happening are your fault, because your town sucks." No, David Hardy isn't very good at his job-- but who could be good at the job that HB 70 has created? How do you lead well when HB 70 is fundamentally a punishing act of disrespect toward a local district?

HB 70 sets a district up for every bad corporate reform idea in the book. Test Scores! Visionary CEO! Transformation! Disruption! Spank teachers! Test scores! Strip local control! Expectations!  Test Scores! Kids first (but not really)! A smart person with marketworld skills from outside will be so much better than career educators! The state knows more about fixing schools than anyone! Also, test scores!

When gubernatorial candidate Dennis Kucinich visited Lorain last year, he suggested suing the state over HB 70, but that process is already under way. Youngstown has been leading the charge, and Lorain parents have gotten involved-- at least on the petition level. The law was challenged in court almost immediately, initially decided in favor of the state, and worked up to the state supreme court which agreed to hear it last October. It also creates some unique issues-- Youngstown's school CEO would not allow the Youngstown board to spend money on the appeal. Lorain teachers filed a "friend of the court" brief as a party directly affected by the outcome, and several districts ands the Ohio School Boards Association have joined the suit.

Meanwhile, new Ohio governor Mike DeWine is sympathetic to some of the issues involved:

“One of the concerns, one of the things that we have seen in Youngstown, Lorain, is the obvious loss of local control, and we’re seeing some of the dynamics that result from the loss of local control. We are a very local government state,” DeWine said. “We like it that way, most of us do. Most of us think that problems get solved locally, so I’ve got some people working on this and we are working with some legislators on this, actually, but I really can’t go into any more details at this point.”

So there is at least some small bit of hope for Lorain and Youngstown and East Cleveland and every other poor Ohio community that was going to fall under HB 70 sooner or later. But if HB 70 ever goes away, those communities will still be facing all the problems they were facing before the state stepped in to help plus all the wreckage left by HB 70. The future is not going to be all rainbows and unicorns any time soon.

And the bitter irony in all of this is that, by many accounts, Lorain was climbing when the state stepped in. We'll never know how they would have done if the state had just left them alone.

I came to really like Lorain in my brief time there. If things had worked out differently, I would have been glad to stay in that big little town. It deserved better than to be used and discarded by industry; its solid blue collar citizens deserved better as well. And they deserve better treatment by the state than to be thrown under a reform-driven bus that gives them exactly all the wrong things, everything but the support, assistance and resources that they need. This is corporate ed reform at its worst, disenfranchising citizens, trashing communities, and not even coming close to delivering what it promised as an excuse for the power grab.

I've kept up with Lorain, watching them in the news over the years ever since I left town right ahead of the industrial collapse. I'll keep watching the news, hoping for good news from that beautiful little big city on the lake.

And here's the next chapter--  

Much of this post rested on reporting by the Chronicle, which has covered Lorain schools like a boss.