Discussing the Great School Wars with Journalist Owen Davis

Early twentieth-century public schools performed no miracles for first- and second- generation children of European descent, but did facilitate enough mobility to succor the myth of omnipotence.

-Diane Ravitch, The Great School Wars, 1974

Education politics is messy. It’s hard to find any solid theoretical ground to stand on when we talk about segregation, accountability, school choice – things that often cut across established left-right positions.

That’s why we recently read Diane Ravitch’s Great School Wars, a thorough, if at-times flawed account of New York City educational battles across two centuries.

In 1967, a young Ravitch was contracted by the Carnegie Foundation to research a school decentralization effort that eventually led to one of the biggest teacher’s strikes in U.S. history. A single district in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn sought to run its schools independently, pushing “community control” apart from the central bureaucracy of the city’s Department of Education.

She found it to be a common conviction of the black residents of Brooklyn that for generations the New York City schools had single-handedly lifted the poor residents of the city out of poverty. European immigrants of the 1800s and early 1900s had ascended into the middle-class, and education was always credited as being responsible for this social mobility.

But as she continued her research, which would become this book, Ravitch found that our faith in the schools as “an institution capable of individual and group salvation” is largely mythical, and has been used as cannon fodder for social and political battles since the very first years of New York City’s public schools. She concluded that schools are best understood not in and of themselves, but as a battleground for larger political and social conflicts. These conflicts lead to reforms that either centralize or decentralize power in the district.

It’s not hard to see how these themes apply to today. The 20-year push for charter schools and school choice is in large part an effort to decentralize the traditional public school district, placing greater power in the hands of charter school administrators and parents.

These dynamics are complicated by the social context. Today, that context is the interplay of segregation and gentrification. In the 1960s, with whites fleeing the city for the suburbs, black communities began seeking greater control of their schools, particularly regarding what would be taught and by whom. Today, gentrifying white families use their existing cultural and political capital to place their children in a dwindling number of coveted seats in “high-quality” schools.

In this post we outline Ravitch’s framework and attempt to map it on today’s educational landscape. What do past school wars tell us about what’s to come in NYC? 

Wars on Wars on Wars

OD: Having just read GSW, what’s your big takeaway?

SB: Ravitch wants the reader to understand that in order to grasp the politics involved in school conflicts, one must understand the broader cultural context for each battle at hand. 

OD: That sounds pretty straightforward. How does this actually play out through history?

SB: Well, take the battle for community control in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood in the late 1960s. The black residents had no faith in the centralized system of the DOE, and as a result, sought to decentralize the system. They created their own advisory boards, through which they intended to control hiring, curriculum, and administration. But the roots of this conflict were much deeper. The DOE and the UFT were majority white, and the black activists behind the community control movement saw those institutions as agents of a racist, white establishment.

And so, we see a racial conflict finding it’s battleground in the schools. The people of Ocean-Hill-Brownsville saw the the failure of the schools in their neighborhood as another manifestation of institutional racism. The vast school system was controlled by one (majority white) centralized office, and so it felt like no mystery as to why their schools were being deprived. They felt that the DOE was neglectful, and that this was discriminatory and racist. They wanted schools that reflected their community, that taught curriculum that was relevant to their history, and that had staff that was interested in black issues. A centralized bureaucracy could never meet the specific needs of every distinct community in the city. And so their solution was to decentralize the system, whereby control would be distributed amongst the neighborhoods, each neighborhood being allowed absolute control over its schools.

So, to understand the school politics of this community control battle, we are required to look outward. The racial politics precede the conflict in the schools; and thinking only about the machinations of the DOE and the demands of the district would put us at a huge loss.

OD: But it makes intuitive sense that societal context would define these battles, right? How could it not? So I guess my question is: what deeper significance is there in all these instances of conflict and reform?

SB: Well, maybe we could ask this another way: why does the school keep coming back as a battleground every few decades? Cultural conflicts find their theater in the school system four times in New York City history. Each battle ends with essentially the same meaningless result:  the city reorganizes the system to be either centralized in one office, or decentralized into various community boards. Ravitch doesn’t find any evidence that these changes solve anything. Why do political conflicts keep getting played out inside the school system?

The schools are especially attractive to the hopes of reformers because of their mythic appeal. Schools take on a symbolic significance for political factions, and their meaning as a place of reform is compounded because they are thought of as a “shaper of destinies” and “capable of group and individual salvation.” They are where the children develop, where the future is cultivated, and so their societal import is instinctively gleeked and impossible to ignore.

OD: So, you’re saying that school politics really has been more of a symbolic conflict?

SB: Well, not exactly a symbolic conflict–that feels too dismissive of what has been at stake. But, perhaps unwittingly, the involved parties have always bought into a belief about the power of schools that isn’t supported by historical facts. And perhaps our conviction in education is better understood as a kind of cultural American myth.

Ravitch reveals that, in terms of social mobility for the masses of New York City, schools have only ever played a limited role. For the Irish of the early 1800s, and the Eastern European and Italians of the 1900s, the growth of the manufacturing industries and expanding political machines enabled social mobility far more than education ever did. The black population of the 1960s settled a city in economic decline, and while the appeal of the school was still strong for them, unfortunately the abilities of public education as an institution for social mobility was more mythic than factual.

Ravitch puts it best in her section describing the hopes of the neglected minorities, from the Irish to the Italians to the African Americans:

The public school was the very symbol of the melting pot, the great cauldron of americanization and assimilation. Once again the school would be the agency which socialized and absorbed an alien culture. This hope was based on the popular myth the public schools has single-handedly transformed immigrant children into achieving citizens. The myth began with the the progressive faith that the schools could accomplish this miracle if they willed it, and grew with schools officials’ self-congratulatory justifications of continued public support for their programs. This view of the school as an institution capable of individual and group salvation took no account of the other factors that contributed to the assimilation of European immigrants or of the large number of immigrant children who were not successful in school. Early twentieth-century public schools performed no miracles for first- and second- generation children of European descent, but did facilitate enough mobility to succor the myth of omnipotence. The curriculum was rigid and irrelevant to children’s lives, the classes were over-crowded, and the teachers (many of them second- or third-generation Irish or Germans) had no special affection for the immigrant children or for their parent’s strange culture. But the ladder was there from “the gutter to the university,” and for those stalwart enough to ascend it, the schools were a boon  and a path out of poverty. The majority of immigrant children, who did not get to a university or even, in the first generation, through high school, owed as much or more to the nation’s rapidly developing economy and to their own personal, familial and cultural resources, than to the school. Difficulty in school was not uncommon for children from poor, rural backgrounds, whether they were white and southern European in 1910 or black and southern American in 1960. (p. 244)

OD: So the social context is that different social groups pursue their interests through the schools, which they view as vehicles of uplift and salvation. But GSW is about more than how people talked about education. Ravitch gets into the nitty-gritty. What’s the practical result of all this tussling?

SB: Well, what Ravitch finds is that the the end game of the cultural conflict of 1968 is remarkably similar to the first school war of 1840s. In the early 1800s, you had a WASP establishment that wanted to control public education, and an Irish minority that wanted their Catholic schools to receive funding while functioning autonomously. The WASP establishment was seen as xenophobic, and wished to impose their protestant cultural mores. The Militant Bishop Hughes provoked riots to assert their demands for reorganizing the school system; not unlike the riots of the 1960s for Black community control. In both cases, an newly-settled minority fought the established powers, demanding reorganization of the system.

But, 50 years after a deal is brokered between the Irish and the WASP powers, a new cultural movement takes hold, and the schools are reorganized again. Then, 50 years later, another cultural conflict, and outsiders demand a redistribution of power, and the schools are reorganized again. This back-and-forth, centralization, decentralization, centralization, decentralization, never achieves any true amelioration of the schools because it was barely about the schools to begin with, other than the fact that education always seem so important to the future of american children. But these conflicts are really about outsiders asserting power, and the school system became an example of that power.

OD: So whatever the result, whether decentralization or re-centralization, what we get is a bureaucratic reorganization that promises to solve specific problems brought up by reformers or social interest groups. But it can’t, since the causes to those problems usually lie outside the school system.

Looking Forward

SB: So how is all this relevant to New York City schools today?

OD: If anything, the mythic appeal of the schools is more alive today than ever. The pop-culture reference point for thinking about urban education is called “Waiting for Superman.” The idea that equitable quality education can act as a lever of social uplift for entire populations is taken as gospel by Democrats and Republicans alike.

The battles we see playing out in NYC today hinge on the mythic appeal. To simplify the city’s education politics, we can look at the rivalry between Success Academy’s Eva Moskowitz and Mayor Bill De Blasio. Moskowitz presents her network of charter schools as the only passport out of poverty for millions of students. She has fought the city tooth and nail for control over her schools, going so far as to sue over the city’s pre-k contract, which she refused to sign.

Success gets a lot of its philanthropic funding from hedge fund managers and other financiers, much like other major charter networks. In that way the current reform movement echoes that of a century ago, when Rockefeller sponsored the largest educational nonprofit efforts. And just like at that time, pedagogical and disciplinary methods center around businesslike efficiency and order.

SB: Yes, charter networks like Success are explicit in wanting to re-make schools in the image of corporations–I was struck by how similar this idea is to the reformers of the early 20th century, such as the proponents of Taylorism. And yet, we live in a different New York now.

OD: The societal context has changed, even reversed in some ways. We’re still segregated and unequal. But living standards aren’t accelerating like they were in previous eras — in fact, poverty is becoming more concentrated and wages for the poorest are falling. And instead of immigrants and African Americans coming into the city, whites are gentrifying it, replacing communities of color as real estate interests pump capital into neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy, Harlem and Crown Heights.

The conflicts today are minor compared to the mass boycotts and disruptions of the ‘60s or before. But skirmishes are flaring up. White parents — as always — use their social and political capital to claim and maintain privileged spaces, as in Dumbo and Park Slope, which saw bitter zoning battles this past year.

SB: We hear so often how gentrification creates such potential for integration, but as Nikole Hannah-Jones has recently warned, it’s so much more complicated. There are so many ways in which the privileged powers of the city can advance the fate of their own children, and leave those without access to power or money to fend for themselves.

OD: Yeah, and that’s what’s really interesting to me. We’ve seen hints of gentrification school wars, but I think we still have much bigger battles in store. Right now, the means that white parents are using to ensure the best spots for their children aren’t systemic, so far as I know. They’re more piecemeal — they’re not pushing for a total reorganization. Instead they’re doing what they’ve done for the last 40 years, playing a system that has always had secret backdoors for whoever had the time and resources to seek them out.

It’ll be interesting to see whether that starts to change in the next 10 or 20 years. We’re in a hybrid centralized-decentralized system, where charters sit alongside (and sometimes directly conflict with) public schools, but the system is still under mayoral control. As the current crop of gentrifier 20-somethings settle down and have babies — and as legacy white schools max out their enrollments — will these families send their kids to majority-black public schools that hardly resemble the suburban oases where they grew up? Or will they try for some institutional or systemic change that gives them control of new schools? Will they push for new charters that cater to the things white parents like, that have high bars for enrollment?

SB: It seems appropriate to quote Dr. Ravitch quoting The Who, as she often does: “The new boss… same as the old boss.” As New York City changes again, the interests of the new residents will inevitably lead to drama in the schools. Let’s hope someday we can put an end to the cycles The Great School Wars depicts, where cultural battles end by reorganizing the bureaucracy in lieu of addressing the root problems at play.

Book Report: Hope Against Hope

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the state of Louisiana took over the City of New Orleans’ school district. Completely behind closed doors and without the input of the public, elected officials fired all of the unionized teachers and divided up the schools into two districts. One district would remain under city control, but would be operated entirely by independent Charter Management Organizations. The remaining schools comprised the Recovery School District, which would be controlled by the state. In the 10 years since the charter takeover, New Orleans has been hailed as a success by some and a catastrophe by others. But, as Sarah Carr shows in her book Hope Against Hope, there is much more to the story than can be captured in a simple diagnosis.

I have worked at a charter school for a few years, and I continuously feel confused about whether the work of my organization signals a win or a loss for public education. In the most immediate sense of my work, I’m coming in to a school every day and teaching a set of children–watching them learn, meeting specific goals, celebrating their achievements–how could this be bad? But, if you work at a charter school for a few years, you realize there is much more to the story than the children in your classroom.

Since the first staff orientation at my school, leaders have been telling us that we are “warriors” in a fight to change public education. I was told that the school system is failing, and teachers unions and a bloated bureaucracy are to blame. Our daily work impacts more than our students, our schools and our communities, because we are demonstrating a new school model, and our example will be used in the fight to expand this model. My work will be a small, but essential part of transforming America’s schools.

I care about the children in my school and love teaching them–but I didn’t sign up to change the public school system. I appreciate many of the benefits of the way my school is run, but that doesn’t mean that I think it’s a panacea for public education, or that I want to be involved in propagating its expansion. I struggled to figure out where I stood in this “war.” Most distressing was that I didn’t know where to go get a better sense of these issues. As I started reading up on things, I came across two dominant definitions of the conflict, neither of which I could accept. In her book, Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children, Sarah Carr captures my confusion perfectly:

“According to one narrative, wealthy hedge fund millionaires and foundation leaders had hijacked the schools in pursuit of their own interests and would stop at nothing short of destroying public education as we know it.”

You’ll hear this from many advocates of public education, most popularly Diane Ravitch. My school is funded by hedge-fund millionaires and foundation leaders. If you accept this narrative, I am a cog in a vicious machine. And then there’s the other story:

“According to the opposing narrative, teacher’s unions had hijacked the schools in pursuit of their own interests and would stop at nothing short of destroying public education as we know it.”

That’s the story that has been told to me by my school leaders for years. It didn’t take me long to realize how wrong this depiction is and how much more must be considered when we think about schools.

While conducting the research for her book on the schools of New Orleans, neither of these narratives held true for Sarah Carr. She concludes that “top down accounts of school change too often fail to capture the complex realities of children and educators.” And where does that leave us? What do we do if we want to better understand America’s education issues for all of their complexity? We need to start from carefully learning from the action on the ground. As Carr observed in her research, and as you will see in her book, simple definitions of the problems “shatter under the weight of true narratives.” She concludes that “Americans must take a more bottom-up approach to understanding education policy and assessing its impact.” She begins this project for us with the stories she tells in her detailed and carefully considered book.

Carr anchors her book by following three people over the course the 2010-2011 academic year: a student, a teacher and principal. Fourteen-year-old Geraldlynn goes through her first year of high school at the brand new Kipp Renaissance Academy. Aidan Kelly has just completed his 2-year TFA commitment, which kept him teaching GED classes at a particularly difficult remedial school. He is excited to start his third year at Science Academy, a charter school that has boasted high test scores for the past few years and, whose view of the work of education matches his own. Mary Laurie, has been appointed to lead O. Perry Walker High School, and her story provides the basis for the author’s investigation into how a more traditional school model is faring in the New Orleans of the charter takeover.

From her years of research, Carr concludes that the new charter model in New Orleans must change how it interacts with its community. As the city’s schools are replaced by charters, they must learn how to recognize the various needs of their communities, and learn about what makes the denizens unique. Charter schools like Science Academy and KIPP Renaissance impose a school culture narrowly focused on data, and are almost completely unaware of the home lives of their students. The schools are staffed by outsiders–majority young, white, and raised in the suburbs–who are instructed to concern themselves exclusively with students “college readiness,” and to actively ignore factors that are beyond their control.

The Problem with the Hedgehog

Carr examines one principle in particular that shapes the charter schools’ organizational philosophy: the Hedgehog Concept. The concept comes from the book Good to Great by Jim Collins, an immensely popular book for improving small businesses that has been widely read amongst charter school leaders. The principal of Akili Academy, Sean Gallagher, requires all novice teachers to read this book cover to cover. The idea is that businesses should strive to “do one thing and do it well” rather than take on a number of different pursuits at once (a hedgehog wins a fight by doing one thing: rolling up into a ball). A corporation’s assessment of a given scenario, however complex the scenario may be, should be viewed exclusively through the lens of their singular goal. For Akili Academy, this goal is academic achievement. Charters, like Akili and Renaissance, “simplify a complex world into a single organizing idea, a basic principle or concept that unifies and guides everything.” Following this advice, “it doesn’t matter how complex the world,” because an effective organization,

reduces all challenges and dilemmas to simple–indeed almost simplistic–hedgehog ideas. For a hedgehog, anything that does not somehow relate to the hedgehog idea holds no relevance.

Charter schools attempt to simplify the world of impoverished New Orleans, taking a myopic focus on academic achievement, and the willfully disregard anything that doesn’t immediately translate into academic achievement. But, holding this simplification as crucial to their effectiveness as an organization, they fail to see how it creates risks.

These school use specifically standardized test data and college-acceptance rates as the language of their myopic focus. Principal Sean Gallagher of Akili Academy, an elementary charter school, explicitly reminds new teachers of their “single-minded focus on academic achievement.” His school, he says, will never be like Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, which became famous for championing wrap-around services for their students and providing parenting classes for their student’s families. “If the school tried to do too much,” he believes, “it risked failure on its core mission.” As one teacher puts it, “Teaching is a series of things you do in response to the data you get.”

Focusing on college matriculation isn’t bad in and of itself. But the schools “have such an overtly academic focus, they tend to deprioritize any issue they perceive as extraneous to their mission of sending all their students to and through college.” All aspects of a child’s development are thus understood only in their relevance to college acceptance; behavior is good or bad only insofar as it denotes “college-readiness” or not. Undesired behavior is remonstrated for being “unprofessional” or unbecoming of a “scholar” or college-bound student. In one scene, a group of restless kindergarteners receives a lecture from their teacher, “I know all of you want to go to the first grade because all of you want to go to college. But you need to show discipline over your bodies to do that.” These charters use the goal of college acceptance to impose an ethical code, where behavior either leads to college acceptance or does not. A traditional approach would involve investing in social workers and school counselors, which we see in one charter that Carr profiles. But in the hedgehog model of business, an approach to psychological development that reaches beyond the narrow goal of the college-matriculation is unfortunately seen as an additional cost.

No Excuses Policies in Action

Consistent with charter schools’ myopia, the way that the schools handle student behavior is also simplified. Schools like Akili, Renaissance and Science Academy implement “no-excuses” policies in order to maintain order. There is no official definition or list of characteristics that make up a no-excuses policy. As it has been explained to me in my training as a teacher at a charter school, no-excuses implies a sense of absolute responsibility on the part of the student. Each individual is the sole agent of their decisions, and examining their behavior in the broader context of, say, poverty or mental health would merely be providing excuses. If we are allowing excuses, we risk perpetuating the “soft-bigotry of low expectations” that school reformers cast on the public schools. While it is unclear whether or not this is the true origin of the name, it certainly captures the stance of the practitioners. It may be better to examine the methods of these no-excuses schools to get a sense of their ethos.

In effect, there are rules for almost every possible action a student could take at a no-excuses school. Uniform policies are extensive and strictly enforced. Students are taught to walk along tape in the hallways, silently in straight, single file lines, and they are not allowed to lean on the wall or take their hands out of their pockets. In class, students must always “track” the speaker, their hands must remain folded if they are not writing, and their feet must stay on the floor with the backs straight against their chairs. All students are taught specific methods of reacting to class discourse–hand signals, nodding or quiet snaps–and participation in this is required. Regulations are reified by operant conditioning techniques that reward the good behavior and punish the bad, and tracking systems of the number of “demerits” a student receives in a day. For example, a student may receive a demerit for looking away from their teacher during a lesson, or taking her hands out of her pockets in the hallway.

This may seem like a more complicated system in an institution that is supposed to prefer simplification. But, while behavior management policies like this are complex, they simplify the problems of human behavior in a way that is compatible with how these schools view their mission. These methods are based on the premise that the behavior of the student body can be wholly determined through explicit directions from an authority figure. Consistent rewards and punishments will encourage and discourage certain behavior, and thus the student body is predictable and manageable. They believe that following these policies will result in changing students’ behaviors entirely, a process sometimes referred to as “calibration” or “acculturation.” Working within this logic, they excise the need for social workers or school psychologists. They curb unpredictable and messy concerns around the qualities of the communities that the children inhabit–such as a lack of quality health care or social services. They attempt to simplify the challenges that come with establishing a school by using a schema that completely ignores the world beyond the school walls, except insofar as this schema accepts that the children must learn compliance to authority.

It is worth noting that, in many cases, the parents of the children in these communities are in favor of the strictness of the schools. When the principal of KIPP Renaissance meets with parents to discuss methods of behavior management, a number of parents call out encouragingly, with exhortations, like  “Let them know you ain’t playin’!” and “That’s right, zero tolerance, baby!” Strictness clearly has its merits, especially when attempting to organize groups of adolescents, and even more so when many of these adolescents live in a community where chaos is not uncommon. But the problem with no excuses policies is that they do not properly prepare the schools for dealing with the specific effects of the city beyond the school, and thus do not effectively affect the children while they are in school.

What Carr Learns from One Student

The disconnect between No-Excuses policies and the lives of students is captured best in Carr’s profile of a student named Brice. Brice is actually drawn to KIPP Renaissance because of its rigid behavior policies. At fourteen, he has already begun to feel the pull of his neighborhood’s crime scene, and seeks out KIPP Renaissance as an institution to set him on a straight and narrow path. Brice had already been expelled from one middle school and was often in trouble at the next one. He says of himself, “I know I’m bad. You got to be really big and really on top of your game to make me do what you want.” The depiction of KIPP’s strictness made Brice think that KIPP could provide the environment that could put him in line and forge the changes he desperately needed.

However, Renaissance fails to establish a culture of order. Only a month into school, fights break out often, teachers are cursed out, and students completely ignore rules regarding homework. Demerit systems, which teachers maintain fastidiously and record on their ipads, do nothing to impact the students’ behavior. Over the course of the year, the staff attempts to tweak systems, sometimes reverting to writing the names of miscreant students publicly on whiteboards in the front of the class, but even more desperate attempts fail to influence how students act.  Geraldlynn captures a dismal scene in this brief explanation of a teacher whom she likes, but who fails to maintain the strict rules she has been instructed to implement:

“If you actually go in her classroom to talk to her, she is really sweet.  But during class she makes us be silent all the time. And when we keep talking the only thing she know to do is say, ‘I’m not playing.’ We keep talking and the next thing we know she is in tears. We are like, ‘Oh my God. Soft. Weak.’”

With the failure of these “no-excuses practices,” soon enough, the administration uses even less honorable tactics to get the school under control. The administration begins to implement suspensions, expulsions and subtler methods of pushing out students they deem disruptive.

One of the students they decide to suspend is Brice. The accusations of his suspension are suspiciously thin. According to the administration, he provoked a student into fighting another classmate, but it’s unclear if a fight ever occurred. It’s likely that the suspension is actually the result of a long string of offenses, like defying teachers’ instructions or cursing them out.. But this alone doesn’t explain the intensity of his suspension, which lasts 45 days. As Carr explains it, Brice has become something of a big personality on campus, someone who, by one teacher’s account, “could turn a class” for better or for worse. Carr describes Brice often working with teachers in ways that help them. He checks a group of students who creully harrass a classmate, referring to a lecture on conscience that a KIPP teacher gave (in which he used a Native American myth to demonstrate psychomachia).  In one scene Brice helps out a classmate who embarrasses himself at a school dance, kindly encouraging the boy back into the social atmosphere. In another scene, a frustrated teacher can’t quiet his classroom, and calls out Brice specifically, telling the boy to think how he would feel if he were in the teacher’s position. Brice asks the teacher to speak with him in the hallway, and then informs the teacher that the class is worked up because there has just been a fight. The teacher reflects on the exchange later with Carr, saying, “He was trying to help me. If you win with Brice you’ve done so much. He’s either going to be a loud protester or a vocal defender of the status quo.”

What would a school that could change an adolescent like Brice for the better look like? How could we run a school that tapped into his strengths and curbed his negative behavior? Carr doesn’t say, and I certainly am not about to try. But Carr makes a substantial case that schools like Renaissance–staffed by inexperienced teachers instructed to carry out a complicated taxonomy of tactics with uncompromising authority, and who are taught to actively ignore the external causes for problematic behavior and the complex psychology of its students–are not the answer. If schools do not reckon with the causes made in the home lives of the students they are setting themselves up for failure–and their failure can be tragic.

And such is the case with Brice. During his 45-day suspension, he becomes closer with those members of his community whom he had hoped Renaissance would help him avoid. In the Spring, one of these men asks Brice to accompany him for a ride. Unbeknownst to Brice, the man was using the boy for his legal status as a juvenile–because Brice is underage, he can help him with the crime that he picks him up to commit. They come to a stop in the car, and another man in the backseat fires a gun into an another car. The police pursue the car, which crashes, and catch Brice, and the boy gets caught up in the dysfunctional justice system for over a year, and, to say the least of his future, his academic career seems impossible now. 

The adolescents entering Renaissance come from a world that their teachers know almost nothing about. As Carr explains:

Brice moved between a world where teenagers routinely risked their lives to supply their families with cash and one where he had to snap his approbation, always remember the good wolf and silently track the speaker. One world taught authority backed by guns and money, the other compliance with comparatively meaningless penalties.

Obviously, reducing Brice’s world to the goal of college matriculation does not provide an environment where complex problems are given real solutions.

KIPP Renaissance does not bounce back from its chaos. The principal steps down at the end of the year, and they end up cycling through __ principals in the __ years. Sean Gallagher’s Akili Academy also reaps a similar result in their implementation of no excuses policies. Gallagher abided by the hedgehog concept at first, but over the course of the year came to recognize the variety of issues that affect children’s ability to learn. In an initial screening of the students, a team from Tulane University “flagged” almost half of them with “a serious behavioral, social or emotional need.” A number of students would resort to disruptive and violent behavior when frustrated, and would have to be removed from the classroom by a Dean. As Carr notes,

Many new orleans students arrive at school with intense, often unmet, needs. Students have witnessed murders, lived through Katrina’s chaos, passed in and out alternative schools, lost close relatives to shootings, spent time in jail, and attended more schools than they can remember.

Many more factors could be added to Carr’s list. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the most successful charter in the book, Science Academy, is the one that does the most to address its student’s needs. The wife of Sci’s principal is a school psychologist. The school attends to its students’ mental health needs by keeping a full-time school psychologist, a full time social worker and a second part-time social worker on staff. Investing in faculty who are trained and experience in mental health work appears to be a way to adapt to the unique needs of children in poor communities. Unfortunately, that investment does not directly translate to improvements in standardized test data.

Hope Against Hope is required reading for anyone interested in school politics today. I’d also recommend Sarah Carr’s many other articles, which can be found on her website sarahelizabethcarr.com.

 

Discussing Newark Schools with Journalist Owen Davis

School Building reached out to journalist Owen Davis to discuss Dale Russakoff’s recent book, The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools. Russakoff covered the massive reform efforts in the Newark public schools that took place between 2009 and 2015. After a coalition formed between billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, Mayor Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie, a new set of policy-makers arrived in Newark. Bolstered by $200 million in philanthropic gifts, these reformers attempted to completely overhaul the system, but they achieved far less than they had hoped. We reached out to Owen Davis because of his coverage of the Newark school reforms that appeared in the Nation in 2014. This conversation, which was conducted over e-mail, begins a series on essential education reading that Davis and School Building will be posting over the next few weeks.

The Consultant Class

SB: When Mark Zuckerberg announced his $100 million gift on Oprah, he made it clear that his ambitions were not limited to Newark alone. He described how he wanted Mayor Booker and Governor Christie to, “have the flexibility they need to… turn Newark into a symbol of educational excellence for the whole nation.” In fact, Booker had courted the billionaire months before with that exact goal. In the mayor’s reform plan, the Newark Schools were described as a “laboratory where the education reform movement could apply its strategies to one of the nation’s most troubled schools districts.” Although this would be Zuckerberg’s first major donation, he perfectly embodied what is now  known as a “venture philanthropist.” This new class of philanthropist doesn’t merely fund a cause, they review the problem at an institutional level and seek to provide solutions by drastically changing  the system. This approach has become very popular in education, but this project offered something new: an entire city where venture philanthropists could implement multiple initiatives with the backing of the Mayor and the Governor.

And, five years later, what was the quality of the results? This is a  big question, so let’s start here: did the money get to the students?

OD: What do you mean by “get to the students?”

SB: Meaning, were dollars being spent in a way that directly affected the experience of the children in the classroom? Now in some sense, whenever money goes into the system, the influence of it should impact the the experience of the students. The way I see it, spending $50K to hire a school psychologist, well, that would be highly an influential use of money. Spending $1000 a day on a consultant to develop new data-analysis systems that are intended to evaluate teachers based on test scores would be an example of, all told, money not coming to the students.

OD: One of the strongest points of The Prize was really outlining how much of the money actually fell to ground and how much remained caught up in the swirl of consultants, administrators and professional reformers. Russakoff tabulated $21 million going to consultants alone. That’s a pretty staggering figure.

From the standpoint of Zuckerberg and company, though, there’s some logic to it. With $100 million or $200 million, what can you really do? Newark’s annual budget is around $1 billion. If you hire, say, 100 new psychologists and social workers for the district at an annual cost of $5 million, how long will that last before the money dries up and they all get laid off? From this vantage point it makes more sense to direct money towards changes at the very top, where there was certainly plenty of work to do.

But even if we accept that line of thinking, did the deeper structural reforms make sense? For example, the teacher contract. That was Zuckerberg’s top priority, aligning teacher pay with test scores. Half of the original $50 million was earmarked for this effort. Was this justified?

It helps to look at the context. Russakoff’s book does a great job of mapping the institutional and sociological terrain in which the reforms took place. And in laying out the history of Newark — the disinvestment, the white flight, the riots and injustices — she makes clear that the challenges facing the teaching profession in Newark are much steeper than a simple lack of motivation on the part of teachers.

I taught in a public school for two years in Bridgeport, Connecticut, a city not unlike Newark in its economic and racial history. When I encountered feckless, burnt-out teachers — and there certainly were some — it was clear that pay incentives weren’t the main issue. There’s a malaise that grows in schools charged with achieving results they’re simply not equipped to achieve. You have one counselor, one part-time social worker and no school psychologist, and you’re supposed to transform the lives of 800 students coming from poverty-riddled communities, many of whom are scarred by traumas you can’t fathom. It takes a lot to persist in that context. Idealism sours quickly. Then someone comes along and tells you the problem is your incentives are off, that you should be raising these kids’ test scores first and foremost. How are you going to react?

The McKinsey consultant class doesn’t look at problems this way. They might be able to identify inefficiencies and waste, but when it comes to understanding a community, only the community can do that. When you look at the early expenditures of the Zuckerberg money, a lot of it is to expensive consultants who were planning this switch to a portfolio district, and what it would mean for the schools on the ground.

SB: And what did these consultants accomplish?

OD: I believe a lot of the consultant money went to people planning the shift away from the traditional district model–where the district directly oversees all its schools–to the portfolio model, where individual schools or networks are semi-independent, and the district plays only a supervisory role. The portfolio model is the favorite of charter proponents and business types. It mirrors an investment portfolio, where higher-performing stocks receive greater investments and disappointing ones are dropped. In the same way, successful schools are multiplied and low-performing ones are closed. This means big changes at the top of the district, especially since individual schools are expected to take on many of the responsibilities that the district once carried.

SB: Responsibilities like staffing, budgets, and curriculum and instruction are shifted away from the district’s central office–which the reformers consider an overwhelmed bureaucracy–and given to individual principals. This gives the principals more autonomy but also positions them as a focus of accountability. I suppose these reformers think that the portfolio of schools approach is also beneficial insofar as it should reduce the size of the bureaucratic machinery and create cleaner lines of accountability.

OD: I think it remains to be seen whether the portfolio model has worked out in Newark. It’s clear, though, that it didn’t really align with what the community wanted, which was chiefly more resources in the schools.

History Claims Everybody

SB: While reading this book, I kept thinking of the novels of Philip Roth–who was himself a product of the Newark public schools in the 1950s. In a series of books in the ‘90s, many of which are set in his hometown, Roth obsesses over the idea of historical forces overwhelming well-intentioned individuals. The theme is that, “History claims everybody, whether they know it or not and whether they like it or not.”  In many ways, that is the story of Zuckerberg’s massive attempt to change the schools in Newark. Again and again the reformers ignored the historical forces that had been at work for decades in Newark, and they end up with far less than they had set out to achieve.

OD: Russakoff investigates the challenges to schools in light of the social and economic issues that are distinct to Newark. In fact, she cites Booker and Zuckerberg’s inability to think of Newark’s specific problems as the fatal flaw in their endeavor. The reformers wanted to create a “blueprint for school reform,” a plan that could be reproduced in “every small city in america.” It’s a noble goal, but it allowed them to view  the city without the historical lens that is required in order to get a complete sense of the challenges they faced.

In short, these challenges are racial and economic. For generations, Newark was a kind of launching ground for poor immigrants to ascend into the middle class. In the early 20th century, Irish and Italian immigrants filled neighborhoods and took advantage of the industrial economy that was flourishing in the city. In this same era, the schools were renowned for their accomplishments. Famous alumni include Philip Roth, as you mentioned,  and Amiri Baraka. But black families who came to the city seeking the same opportunities in the 50s and 60s were met with segregation and white flight, and eventually the city suffered a complete erosion of the middle class tax base. That history is necessary to grasp if you want to address school issues in Newark.

SB: Perhaps the most interesting thing to me about these changes is how they are all distinct, and yet don’t quite occur independently of each other. The exodus of middle-class citizens begins with the construction of new interstate highways funded by the federal government. These allowed middle-income and wealthy workers to relocate to the suburbs, which had become culturally preferable, and enabled them to commute easily to the city. In addition to effectively removing most citizens of a certain income bracket, these new highways cut through Newark’s neighborhoods, driving down the value of the homes of those who remained in the city. The federal government further encouraged the growth of the suburbs through home-mortgage subsidies in those areas. At the same time, the federal home loan program redlined almost all of the city of Newark, labeling it “too risky” for mortgages or lending.

In this same era, the city lost its economic base as factories relocated to the south and overseas. This all occurred at the peak of the Great Migration. Like immigrants before them, black families came to Newark seeking middle-class jobs that required little education. But for this wave of newcomers–which totaled 160,000 men, women and children–the jobs had departed, along with the families whose personal wealth had helped the city.

It’s not over yet. The city responded to these changes by implementing policies that ended up further disadvantaging low-income families. In the name of urban renewal, neighborhoods were bulldozed and replaced with city plazas and new construction projects. New  public housing projects were also created, using federal funds, which were used to house the relocated poor. This resulted in a much higher concentration of poverty; by the 1960s more than eighteen thousand residents, virtually all of whom were low-income black and hispanic, were jammed into a one-and-a-half mile radius.

By 1967, seventy-one percent of the city was african-american. This was a  population who arrived in Newark with aspirations of realizing the American Dream, just  as so many white immigrants had done for decades. But the various  mechanisms that enable social mobility–manufacturing jobs, pathways to homeownership, economically integrated communities–disappeared over the same  decades in which the majority of black families settled in the city. Racial discrimination around hiring was also well-documented in this era. The rage and distrust that this bred in the community resulted in the Newark riots of 1967.

Russakoff argues that the circumstances around this economic decline are relevant to the challenges of school reform for a number of reasons. First of all,  poverty affects communities and imposes challenges to schooling–and Newark’s poverty was in large part caused by neglectful public policies. Secondly,  the fast economic decline in the city led to a steady succession of corruption within political circles, and the schools fell victim to this corruption. This further disadvantaged an already overburdened system. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, these policies have established a deep-seated distrust of the white establishment. The reformers who came into Newark were faced with a community who had plenty of reason to be suspicious of white policy-makers who promised that their intentions were good.

OD: Right. When you look at the plan hatched by Zuckerberg, Christie and Mayor Cory Booker, it kind of looks like small potatoes compared to that historical reality.

They bring a $200m infusion to a billion-dollar budget. They intend to turn the schools around in no less than 5 years. Given the history of the political decisions of white outsiders, any reformer would be hard pressed to win over the trust of the black community, especially surrounding something so emotionally sensitive as the fate of children. And what’s interesting is how the reformers almost intended to disregard that history, viewing Newark as a “perfect” experimental city, to forge an replicable model of reform.

Engaging  the Community

SB: Unfortunately, no one involved in implementing these changes paid much attention to what the community wanted. Even one of the board members of the reform-minded foundations admitted that the community engagement campaign was merely “public relations.” This appears to be a problem inherent in philanthropic reform. As Russakoff points out, philanthropy by definition is antidemocratic. Wealthy donors and boards of trustees determine the focus of the changes, and demand that evidence of achievement is outlined in their definition of the issues. The reformers made very little effort to involve the community, either in communicating the pre-set plans or listening to their suggestions. The implications of this oversight can’t be overstated.

One could argue that the lack of community engagement resulted in the diminished efficacy of the reforms. Would $21 million have been lost to consultants if there had been an effective method of democratic accountability in place? Not to mention how conventional wisdom would dictate that, when attempting to improve a community, one ought to solicit input from that community. Of course, one of the major impediments to this process was the fact that the state took local control away from the Newark School board, and rendered it advisory status. Shavar Jeffries, the president of the school board, expressed his frustration with the hidden decisions in an email to the executive director of Zuckerberg’s foundation: “This remains a black hole to me and thus I suspect everyone. I’d like to know how funding decisions are being made, who’s at the table when they’re being made and how all of this is tied into district decision-making and planning?” Booker created an advisory foundation to help manage the Zuckerberg gift, but seats on the board were reserved for donors who contributed $5 million. Reform decisions continued to be made in private, and the public announcements from Chris Cerf and Cami Anderson were continuously met with angry mobs.

OD: Opening more charter schools was instrumental to the new coalition’s plan. How does the operation of a charter school differ from the operation of a public school?

SB: Russakoff depicts a few major differences between the charter schools and the district schools.  As you noted while reading, Owen, Russakoff doesn’t spend much time discussing the impact of selectivity bias and attrition bias on the performance of charters. Whenever she draws a comparison between the charters and the district schools, she makes some allusion to these factors. Instead, she investigates how day-to-day operations differ between the two and the causes of those differences.

She finds that more money ends up getting to the classrooms of charter schools because the operators are free from the problems of a complicated bureaucracy. Reviewing the financial documents of a KIPP school and a district school, the charter network sent their school $12,664 per child while the district sent only $7,597. Now, the school system is given $20,000 per student every year–how is it that less than half of that amount finds its way to the schools themselves? According to Russakoff, it gets lost in the system’s central bureaucracy, covering the salaries of non-essential personnel and dubiously protected facilities and leasing contracts. Dominique Lee, an administrator at a district school called BRICK Avon looked into the cost of janitorial services. On the private market, services  would only cost the school $400 per child, whereas the union-protected city contract cost the school $1,200 per child.

To be clear, I’m not implying that opening more charters necessarily improves the schools, and Russakoff wouldn’t say that either. In fact, the reformers plan to expand charter schools does considerable harm to the district schools and their budget. Anderson’s 2013 plan diverted $249  million from the district into charter schools, leaving the budget with a structural deficit of $100 million. It also projected the closure of up to 12 district schools and extensive layoffs. As a result of opening enough charter schools to serve forty percent of the children of Newark, Anderson would be leaving the district, which had set out to do much more, with much less.

However, I think Russakoff brings to light a crucial issue in school operations. There is tons of talk about teacher accountability–but why not direct that fervor towards bureaucratic spending accountability? Teacher accountability offers a much simpler and clearer narrative for the public, supplemented by specific horror stories like New York City’s rubber room for teachers. I think that someone ought to take up the reins for a  “forensic accounting of where money in the central office is going so that more of it gets to the classroom.”

OD: The titular “prize” is the billion-dollar annual budget that Newark Public Schools receives. It’s telling that Russakoff chooses this as her title. As she points out, the district is the top employer in a city where productive industry has been scarce for decades — it’s no surprise that the community would use it to support their families, even when that means bloated bureaucracy and starved school budgets. It helps to keep this in mind when you see union-aligned politicians arguing against any budget cuts whatsoever in a bureaucracy that clearly needs to be trimmed–it’s essentially a choice between starving school budgets and starving family budgets.

That’s an awful choice for a community to have to make! But anyway, that perspective, which Russakoff provides, helps inform why districts like Newark end up with so much graft and self-dealing. (Check out this piece on former Detroit star principal Kenyetta Wilbourn for a first-hand account.)

SB: Very interesting, I’m glad you bring that to light. And, if only to be fair, it’s worth pointing out that the same kind of financial hemorrhaging happens when private management comes in. The consultants, who received $1,000 a day for work whose relevance was questionable at best, had been past associates of Cami Anderson. Private reformers have developed what has been called “the school failure industry.” It’s hard to make a clear comparison, but it’s obvious that corruption of this kind is not solved by simply cutting through union protections and political machinery with third-party management.

OD: Of course the district should undergo the “forensic audit” that Russakoff suggests. More money should be going to the children in the classrooms, especially when that means more social workers, counselors, teachers assistants, etc. But it has to be understood w/in the context of a depressed local economy where middle class jobs are scarce.

The charter schools in Newark aren’t weighed down by that economic drag, and Russakoff shows how kids and teachers benefit from leaner bureaucracies and more agile administrators. There’s no question that kids are better off when their schools can provide them with more, faster. But the existence of charter schools doesn’t answer the question of wider economic impacts when the district shrinks.

SB: The last thing I’d like to touch on is the challenges with what Russakoff refers to as “bottom-up reform.” Zuckerberg’s initiative took an approach at changing the system from the top-down, focusing on reorganizing the ways schools administered funding and evaluated their workers. Bottom-up reform begins in the schools, where teachers and administrators take a more involved role in the culture and organization of their specific institution. She describes the work of one program called BRICK Avon. This organization was comprised of a handful of determined, motivated individuals who take on the task of improving their school. They had had strong ties to the community for years before they created their organization. And they achieve results by searching out better curricula and training teachers in it. Under their management, they raised the standards of teaching in their school, and end up pressuring the most recalcitrant and unsuccessful teachers to leave. They sought out grants, and extended the school day by ninety minutes. However, the obvious problem, which almost makes my skin crawl to ask: is our only hope to wait in the wings for motivated, culturally literate individuals to emerge and embed themselves in communities of need? Or can we imagine and create effective mechanisms to galvanize bottom-up changes?

But let’s leave our discussion on those questions. We’d appreciate any readers who want to post a comment and point us towards more resources. Check back with us on January 31st when we continue our conversations on books about education. Many thanks to Owen Davis, be sure to follow him on twitter at @of_davis.

 

An Interesting Plan from a New Organization

How do we improve our schools? Anyone familiar with this question knows that there is no simple answer. Taking the complexities into account, a new organization called the Transforming Teaching Project has started working on a plan. In their white paper, From Quicksand to Solid Ground, which is endorsed by the AFT and NEA, the authors present their vision of a well-supported education system and describe the challenges that stand in the way. Read it here:

From Quicksand to Solid Ground: Building a Foundation to Support Quality Teaching

I anticipate most teachers will view this organization with suspicion at first glance. There are so many actors out there attempting to change our schools and so few are achieving the right results. Many end up subordinating teachers even as they pretend to be “improving the profession.” Others impose a framework adapted from the corporate world–exulting data sets and micromanagement–and end up infuriating us. It’s become second nature to doubt any organization that uses the word “transform” in its motto. Take the overwhelmingly negative response that TeachStrong received when it began its outreach last week (See edushyster, curmudgacation, and Schneider for a start). Much of what TeachStrong describes appears to be moving in the right direction, but it seems best to wait until they put forth more thorough plan before placing a bet. Given the failures of outside organizations in the past few years and the lack of accountability for their blunders, one could argue that it’s our duty to be skeptical.

That said, I would urge you to review this paper and see what you think. The authors don’t seem ideologically slanted in their assessment of the challenges that schools face. One might read their focus on the weaknesses within the teaching profession as consistent with the practices of corporate reformers. However, the authors relied heavily on interviews with experienced teachers to shape their depiction of the problems, and they seem to have listened. Furthermore, the solutions they recommend make no mention of accountability systems, merit pay or data. All of their recommendations hold teachers’ roles in the education system as paramount, and recognize the value of knowledgeable practitioners (see pages 27-35). Their vision includes a restructured school day to provide more time to collaborate, plan, and develop new ways of thinking about teaching. Experienced educators will mentor novices. Teachers will help to decide the research agenda of education schools in order to develop scholarship that has direct application in the classroom. These pragmatic recommendations feel consistent with those of long-time teacher-professionalization advocate Linda Darling-Hammond, who also endorsed the paper.

While the paper is broad in its scope, I’m left with a few questions. First, what does this organization actually do? Their goal is to “work with a growing coalition of education organizations committed to working in concert with one another to deliver transformative change to the teaching profession.” That seems rather vague and doesn’t address how they’ll go about transforming the system in the way they’ve described. One answer I got to this question, from someone who is pretty well-versed with political foundations, was “They don’t know yet, and that’s ok.” They’re a new organization and their plan will materialize as they go. That makes sense to me, but to be honest, I really don’t how these things work.

My other questions are bigger. How do they get the public, who seem to distrust teachers at this point, to support a practitioner-centered vision of schools? It’s commonly believed that teacher’s unions are the primary impediment to public education, and the well-funded proponents of this view are not about to slow down their campaigns. How can we ensure that a vision such as this one–where it is recommended that we invest more in education while teachers have fewer hours of instruction–gains the support of the public? (The authors partially address this on page 10, but leave the question largely unanswered.) Voters aside, how could a proponent of this report secure the support of the legislators who make the funding decisions? Lobbying in the state legislator for educational programs is not new. Perhaps if we forged a coalition that unified the corporate reformers and the AFT and NEA, which found a middle-ground on professionalizing teaching in the right way, the legislators would have no one to disagree with.

In any case, I would encourage you to review their paper, and also to check out their podcast. As Randi Weingarten wrote in a recent blog post, “The tide is turning, and we have the chance to help change the narrative about educators and the role you play; to tell a different story about what works and what doesn’t in public education, based on real experience in classrooms across America.” I hope this is true. Given their definition of the problems and their proposed solutions, it seems like the Transforming Teaching Project wants to help bring about that change. I would keep an eye on them.

 

School Building’s Favorite Parts

On the challenges to researching teaching, page 14:

Teaching is a social enterprise, involving human beings who have their own ideas about what they want to learn and when. For that reason, it will never have the kind of “if you employ X strategy, then you will get Y result” that you see in the physical sciences. Students’ interests and level of prior knowledge, the chemistry among students, the classroom climate, and many other factors play into whether a given lesson lands or falls flat. (Anyone who has ever taught the same lesson to two classes knows this full well.) These interactions and the dynamic nature of teaching also make it difficult to study in ways that large-scale modern research favors. It is difficult to isolate variables because good teaching brings together many factors, and it is difficult to perform randomized control trials because there is no way to freeze into place the intervention to be tested since good teaching requires dynamic responses to unpredictable interactions.

 

On the missing R&D system for teaching, page 3:

We are missing a system to produce, vet, disseminate, and get into use knowledge about quality teaching. Plainly put, there is no one responsible for producing actionable, practical knowledge about teaching. Researchers write mainly for other researchers; teachers with knowledge have few incentives and little support to share it. We lack good mechanisms to evaluate whether knowledge is of any quality or of any use to teachers. Nor are there intermediaries that share knowledge with teachers in a user-friendly or accessible format. In short, there is not an R&D system in education in the way that there is in other fields.

 

The five main aspects of their ideal system, page 26:

  1. A cohesive knowledge generation system in which universities and teachers collaborate.
  2. Intermediary organizations that synthesize and disseminate knowledge.
  3. A differentiated teaching profession that mirrors medicine, including rigorous pre-service education, gradual induction in which experts mentor novices, and meaningful continuing education and career advancement.
  4. A restructured school day that provides teachers with designated time to collaborate, plan, reflect, and generate new knowledge about teaching.
  5. A broad ecosystem that supports the four elements above through policy, incentives, and infrastructure.

 

Quoting Philippa Cordingley, Chief Executive of the Center for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education:

“What we should be doing is collecting teachers’ own research questions, doing a matter analysis of their research questions, and using that to shape the research agenda.”

 

Further Reading:

The Transforming Teaching Project’s Podcast (Accessible from any podcast app, I think)

School Building’s post on one of the founders of this organization, Jal Mehta

Mehta’s book, The Allure of Order (and this review by Jon Thompson)

Is Success Academy Fighting to End Inequality?

The Success Academies Charter Schools closed down last Wednesday and bussed thousands of their teachers, parents and children to Cadman Square in Brooklyn. All of the participants wore t-shirts that read “I fight to end inequality.” Children and parents carried signs that read “Great schools for ALL” and “Separate and unequal still.” On either side of the stage, giant monitors played text such as “Great Schools Now” and “Every Child, Every Zipcode.” Over the course of four hours, children recited spoken word poems, parents gave speeches shaming the public schools for their failures, and entertainers such as DJ Jazzy Jeff and Jennifer Hudson performed for the crowd.

A friend of mine who teaches at one of the Success Academy schools described this scene to me, and suggested I write about this rally, which was staged by Families for Excellent Schools. After doing some very light research into these two organizations, I found it strange that they would put on a rally for “school equality.”

The pro-charter advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools organized the event and the attendants all came from charter schools. According to a white paper from FES, the New York City schools can be divided into two systems: one is a “ladder to prosperity” serving mostly white and Asian children, and the other is a “tunnel to failure” serving mostly black and brown children. They also note that the median income of the neighborhoods where schools succeed is $120,651, while the failing schools have a median neighborhood income of $40,707. According to a document from Success, teachers are meant to tell parents that this rally’s purpose is “to call on Mayor de Blasio and the rest of our city’s leaders to end this system of inequality.”

Even if we were to accept this definition of the problem, which is simplistic to the point of being suspicious, are Success and FES the appropriate advocates for solving this issue of inequality? The obvious subtext of the rally, which is eerily avoided in nearly all of its publicity, is that the city should open more charter schools. Success has been staging rallies with FES like this one for years. In 2014, Mayor de Blasio decided to disallow the opening of three new schools that Success had planned, and FES and Success partnered to stage a rally in Albany. One of the speakers at that rally was Governor Cuomo, whose participation may have been helped by the fact that Success’ backers contributed $400,000 to his campaign. This retaliatory event was planned in tandem with a televised ad-campaign, much of which directly attacked de Blasio, for which FES paid over $4 million. The mission of the 2014 rally was much clearer–let our schools open–and had very powerful effects. With Cuomo’s help, the state laws changed, taking the power out of the mayor’s hands for approving a new charter, forcing the city to find public space for a charter schools and disallowing any way for the city to charge rent to charters.

Since the spring of 2014, the pro-charter messages at these events has become more and more obscured. At the 2013 Albany rally, the T-shirts read “#charterswork.” In 2014, the slogan changed to “Don’t steal possible,” which intended to frame the de Blasio administration’s decisions to halt the growth of charter schools as inhibiting opportunity for the “143,00 children trapped in failing schools.” This year’s message of “fighting inequality” seems to deliberately hide the obvious mission of expanding charter schools.

In addition to their public rallies, Families for Excellent Schools maintains a lobbying arm that is extremely active in the state legislature. In 2014, they broke lobbying records, contributing $2.9 million in one month alone. According to the Nation, FES’ lobbying helped tip the state legislature from majority democrat to majority republican. The organization receives large donations from the richest New Yorkers. FES is not the only organization who has benefited from the philanthropy of Wall Street. In the 2013-2014 school year, Success received $28 million dollars of private funding, which was almost half of what they received from public funds that year. Success’s finances are impressive. In 2013 they moved their offices from Harlem to Wall Street, and took out a $31 million lease for the next 15 years. In the same year, they paid $519,000 to a political consulting firm. These advantages are felt at the schools as well, where, according to an article from the Times last year, “the closets teem with notebooks, folders, pencils and pens.” Every middle school student is given an iPad, and the schools offer their students the kind of extracurricular activities–art, music, chess, theater, dance, basketball and swimming–that you are likely to see cut from the public schools.

According to the New York City Charter School Center, charters serve less than 9% of the 1.1 million children in the New York City school system. Although FES claims that school funding does not affect a school’s efficacy, it seems obvious that Success owes its achievements in part to its incredible wealth. These two organizations command an overwhelming amount of political attention and financial support, all to benefit a very small percentage of the city. Allowing more charters to open may or may not be a good thing, but it’s clear that it will not significantly impact the inequality of New York City schools.

Now this may all be old news to people who pay attention to this sort of thing. But the first thing that bothers me about this rally is that Success and FES must be well aware that their work will not significantly affect these “two school systems” that they so resoundingly condemn. Even if we let alone the fact that FES has drawn this division in the public schools for a rhetorical purpose and accept their definition of the problem, it’s obvious that charters like Success only introduce a new form of inequality into the system. That the benefactors of this new network are mostly low-income students doesn’t take away from the fact that the organization functions as a separate entity with better access to philanthropy and political protection than the “tunnel to failure” schools. In this sense, charters are actually the cause of a separate and unequal system; the kind of system that this rally is pretending to fight.

And yet, Success and FES have mobilized teachers and families with false information and an incomplete portrayal of their role in our unequal society. This leaves me with a few questions. What does it mean for a privileged school to use the voices and bodies of their families to push an agenda that contradicts the message that these families have been told they are supporting? What does it mean for a charter school to use disadvantaged families to further expand their privileges? What does it mean for a school to pretend to support equality while it pushes an agenda that only benefits the few?

(And of course I’m leaving aside a number of very important concerns. The verdict is still out on whether or not the public should support policies to expand charter schools. It’s also not clear that this particular school, Success Academy, really does have great schools by anyone’s standards other than their own. A lot has been written about the school, and the most reliable report from Kate Taylor portrays what many would feel is not a school they would call great. I’m also ignoring the fact that charter schools, whose selection process affects their population, should not be lazily compared with public schools who have no selection process. Or whether it is ethical for a school that receives public funds to close for the day and pay to bus it’s teachers and students to a political rally. These concerns are worthy of deeper investigation, but that must be for another post.)

Tough Talk from Professor Jal Mehta

Jal Mehta takes on both the Reformers and the Traditionalists in these two posts:

Five Inconvenient Truths for Reformers

Five Inconvenient Truths for Traditionalists

As a teacher at a charter school, the search for a grounded, authoritative guide in the shouting match of education-reform discussions can get exhausting. Administrators at my school show us powerpoints with horrifying statistics on the failures of public schools, and then don’t bother providing evidence as to why charters will work in their stead. A different narrative appears to dominate the voices on the internet, and yet many focus on criticizing certain attempts at improvement without providing solutions, and write in the kind of divisive tone that gives me pause. The moments when I remember the variety of social issues involved in improving schools, and the complexity of each one of those, I feel like it would make the most sense to ignore everyone and take a nap. Which is why reading Jal Mehta’s research always provides such a relief.

These two pieces provide a good introduction to the breadth of Mehta’s research and his pragmatic, nonpartisan approach to improving our schools. In the first piece, “Five Inconvenient Truths for Reformers,” he supports five facts that pose challenges to reform efforts. All of them will resonate to someone familiar with reformer rhetoric. Whenever anyone asks me “Charter schools are good, right?” I quote my favorite line from this piece: “Deregulatory models are only as good as the skill and knowledge of the people who populate them.” Providing schools greater freedom from bureaucracy seems great, but it’s only effective if our policies are also working to fill those schools with capable people. Deregulation alone, which reformers are pushing for, simply doesn’t do that. Other choice observations include that the best teachers tend to be the more experienced ones and that, according to his own research, good teaching is found in both reform-minded charter schools and traditional public schools.

Mehta complements his challenges to reformers with a set of “Five Inconvenient Truths for Traditionalists.” In this post you get a sense of how far afield Mehta’s research on education has taken him (and how, to get a fair understanding of the problems involved, you’ve got a lot of reading to do). Mehta sees the schools that we want for our contemporary society as hindered by state and federal education agencies. This is in part because state institutions function as top-down organizations whose goals are primarily to ensure that their practitioners follow laws and receive funds according to how those resources have been appropriated. Meeting these goals fails to shape the kind of learning institutions that we need today. Mehta also comments on how some scholars attempt to derail criticism of the traditional system by refocusing the debate on the social issues that surround schools. While agreeing that factors outside schools are critical, and that they must be included in reform, he holds fast that we cannot lose sight of efforts to improve the education system.

And to top it all off, Mehta writes in the kind of accessible language and measured tone that an amateur like myself can appreciate. If you’re interested in reading more from Mehta, check out his book The Allure of Order, in which he provides a history of education reform in the United States.

School Building: Our Mission

Current education reform efforts have many champions: politicians, foundations, philanthropists, parents and activists.

But where are the teachers? Rarely do we hear direct engagement from the people who have the clearest view of the system’s daily realities. Educators understand the results of educational policies more completely than anyone.

School Building publishes teachers’ perspectives on the American education system. Our editors are experienced, full-time teachers. Our goals are to:

  1. Provide a public forum for teachers to share their perspectives on education policies.
  2. Provide resources for teachers to develop their understanding of of policy issues.
  3. Impact the public discourse on education through teachers’ input on the issues.

School Building is seeking submissions from teachers with at least three years of full-time classroom experience. Experience in any and all school settings are encouraged: public, private, charter, magnet, special education, urban, suburban, rural. Use your experience in the classroom to inform our readers about the policies that are impacting our schools. Please see our submission page for more details about how to get involved.

If we do not learn about our schools from the people who know them best, our country’s educational system will continue to struggle. It is time for teachers to provide their views on education in America: what is working and what must change. At School Building, teachers will give their first-hand accounts of the policies that are shaping our system.