(De)Grading Schools: The PennCAN’s Scam
Last month, public schools across Pennsylvania received a report card. Their grades made the news. In Lehigh Valley, most public schools failed the grade, with Allentown schools ranking 486 out of 490 (and receiving an F overall) and Bethlehem schools ranking 377 (and receiving a D). More affluent Parkland school district fared better, receiving A for its middle schools and B- for high schools.
The local media picked up these “news” very enthusiastically. Their message was loud and clear: our public schools are failing and need to be urgently reformed. Yet, most media spread the “news” without any critical analysis of either the idea of school “report cards” itself, the organization spearheading this initiative, the methodology used to grade schools, or the motives behind school grading. So here is some of the missing analysis.
Let’s first have a quick look at the organization issuing “report cards” to public schools and districts across Pennsylvania – a K-12 education advocacy nonprofit “The Pennsylvania Campaign for Achievement Now” (or PennCAN). Formally launched in 2012, PennCAN is a part of a broader CAN network – The 50CAN – which currently operates in five states (Minnesota, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island) and plans to reach half of the country by 2015. The 50CAN aims to “to restore the American dream one school at a time” through the implementation of the following three policy principles:
- greater choices
- greater accountability
- greater flexibility.
In other words, the 50CAN’s solution to “reforming” public education is to promote school choice, link teacher evaluation to student academic outcomes, expand alternative mechanisms of serving in the teaching profession, and provide school principals with greater control over school staffing and budget. The 50CAN message is straightforward:
“Close chronically failing schools” and turn them into charters.
The PennCAN’s most recent “achievements” include the support of the Educational Improvement Scholarship Credit and an attempt to reform Pennsylvania’s charter school law. The enactment of the Scholarship Credit brought a $50 million tax credit for businesses that give scholarships to low-income students (from failing schools) to attend private or out-of-district public schools. Simultaneously, the PennCAN has lobbied for “creating an independent charter school authorizer, increasing fiscal and academic accountability for charter schools, and studying problems with charter funding.” While the attempt to reform Pennsylvania’s charter school law has been unsuccessful so far, the PennCAN says it will continue to press lawmakers to reform the charter school law.
With this clear privatization logic driving the 50CAN’s reform campaign, it is not surprising that the organization has turned to school grading as its main advocacy tool. Using student achievement scores, the 50CAN assigns letter grades (A through F) to each public school and district in a state in four categories (including performance gains, overall student performance, student subgroup performance, and achievement gap). While the official rationale is to “provide families and communities with a clear benchmark for how their child’s school or district performs,” school report cards do much more. They (de)grade public schools, thus contributing to the rhetoric of crisis and generating reform pressure to turn public schools into private charters. This is a common strategy of “naming, shaming, and blaming” public schools (e.g., see also an Australian case) without addressing the broader systemic problems such as tax policies favoring the wealthy, residential segregation, immigration policies, lack of health insurance, and many others. As Larry Cuban notes,
“Directing attention to only fixing schools [is] a strategy that is both politically attractive and economically inexpensive compared to the uproar that would occur from attacking those who enjoy privileges from leaving those policies and structures untouched.”
Finally, the 50CAN’s engagement in the business of fixing private schools is driven by important financial motives. Given that education is now the second largest market in the U.S. – valued at US$1.3 trillion – it is not surprising to see the massive mobilization of education entrepreneurs, investors, and private donors around federal funds for education. The 50CAN’s supporters include the Walton Family Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Google, and William Penn Foundation, among others. For many of these supporters, education is simply a commodity and schools represent new investment opportunities. At the end of the day, it is about advantageous “market deals,” “education transactions,” and “adding value to education portfolio companies.” It is not necessarily about preserving education as a public good.
Increasingly, investment schemes become successfully disguised as “idealized political activism” – an argument that David Sirota makes in a short video below. Perhaps, this is what the 50CAN’s political activism is all about. A scam. The 50CAN’s scam. Or, in the case of Pennsylvania, the PennCAN’s scam.