Advocates from 91 Countries Call on Governments to Stop Education Profiteers | Peri Global

“Contrary to the right to education, the Education for All goals, and years of civil society campaigning — including that of RESULTS volunteers — to abolish school fees, the practice and acceptance of charging fees for primary school has crept back into the global education landscape. This trend has largely been driven by corporate providers, with some governments and donors now diverting funds towards fee-charging private schools rather than to quality improvements of free, public education systems.

In this context, the Global Campaign for Education (GCE) and its members, including RESULTS, are calling on governments to effectively and responsibly take up their roles as the primary duty-bearers in education. This week at the GCE World Assembly, a global event that saw the gathering of 190 education advocates from 91 countries gather in Johannesburg, the GCE movement passed a motion demanding governments to protect education from for-profit private companies, cease the channeling of public funds to private entities, and regulate private sector involvement in education.”

For more information, see: Advocates from 91 Countries Call on Governments to Stop Education Profiteers | Peri Global.

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Let’s Change the Debate and Encourage the Right Kind of Charter

I hear Diane Ravitch’s critique of charter schools, but as a special education and ESL teacher at public charter school in DC I feel I must defend the work that I do. In her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining EducationDiane Ravitch opposes the establishment of charter schools, privatization, and school choice/voucher systems. She argues that charter schools continue to foster segregation by using funds to create increasingly specialized and selective programs that outperform public schools on assessment. As a result, traditional public schools are forced to operate with increasingly limited funds. In addition, they serve students who are often categorized as special education or English Language Learners. According to Ravitch, the real failure of education reform poverty and segregation.

I am certainly no expert on the national implications of the charter school movement. However, I do know that currently 40% of schools in DC are charters, and there is little chance of that percentage disappearing. So rather than continuing to beat on the drum of charter school failures, or debating whether or not charter schools should exist, I think we should encourage charter school possibilities.

We need to recognize the variation among charter schools. In many ways it is easier to make broad, sweeping statements against charter schools rather than to defend them. I agree with Ravitch that there is a real danger when educational reform is led by business-like, exclusionary charters that can quickly turn students into commodities driven by the desire to meet standardized accountability measures. Many, including Ravitch, may argue that this is the function of most charter schools. Maybe it is. But, just like traditional public schools, for all those poor charter schools, there are a few excellent charter schools. Drawing from my own experience, we should reconsider how charters can use their autonomy to granularly address the root causes of the achievement gap — segregation and poverty — at school.

For example, my charter school population is extremely diverse with a mix of races and affluent and low-income students. According to the book, A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education, by Richard Kahlenburg and Halley Potter, evidence shows that diverse student populations with socioeconomic integration and a balance of several ethnicities helps raise student achievement. Kahlenburg has been previously critical of charter schools but explains that they could be an avenue of ameliorating patterns of segregation if their enrollments are diverse.

Charter schools also have the autonomy to change narrative on equity and equality. Patterns of American history show all major civil rights shifts began as grassroots movements. So with a nuanced approach, a charter school (with less bureaucracy and increased flexibility) can generate a localized shift in discourse. I experience this each day. Not only do we have extensive equity training but continually think beyond quantitative measures. We care about student success as well as test scores. Yet, we simultaneously offer a variety of wraparound

services, promote collaboration, maintain inclusive practices, and support children’s ongoing social-emotional development. In fact, bettering inclusivity and building social skills to improve academic learning in early childhood basically sums up the entire purpose of my job. As Soo Hong explains in Cord of Three Strands: A New Approach to Parent Engagement in Schools, rather than dwell on dysfunction, the core to school reform is the induction, integration, and investment of the community, no matter how impoverished. Through this approach, a single school can stimulate dialogue built on relational trust and equalized distribution of power. If a charter school can develop an inclusive, reflective and equity-driven school culture, then the benefits of a well-run charter outweigh the detriments.

Sources

Ravitch, D. (2010). The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Kahlenburg, R. & Potter, H. (2014). A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education. New York, NY: Teacher’s College Press.

Hong, S. (2011). Cord of Three Strands: A New Approach to Parent Engagement in Schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Diane Ravitch Speaks at Lehigh: A Strong Public School System is the Answer

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On February 10th, 2015, Diane Ravitch gave a very inspiring talk at Lehigh University about the “Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public schooling.”  Commenting on the public vs private school divide in the United States, Ravitch argued that privatization of American schools is a dead end to America’s education and that the real struggle and effort should be more centered on enhancing public schools’ performance.

Considering Ravitch’s background and her commitment to American schooling, she is best positioned to speak about the kind of reforms the nation’s schools need to undertake. Initially, Ravitch supported the legislation proposed by the Bush’s administration of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB); however, the NCLB turned out to be an abomination to the American public school system. In fact, this legislation has put more than one child behind and led to an unequal share of educational triumph. While the percentage of testing is successfully high in America, it is, however, considerably low in public school districts where poverty and unequal access to welfare plagues those disadvantaged communities.

During her speech, Ravitch role-played a debate, where she stood as her opponent and then gave straightforward answers from her own point of view. She advocates the right to premium access to public schools for all children in America regardless their race, ethnicity, religion or social background. One of the most powerful things she mentioned during her speech was referring to poverty and segregation as the roots of failure of American schools. Not only children in disadvantaged neighborhoods in the United States are more likely to perform poorly on the standardized testing but are also subjected to drop out quickly and easily from schools than white middle-class American children ever would. She says that instead of getting rid of teachers whose students have low testing scores, there should be an implementation of peer assistance and review to assess these teachers. Moreover, she proclaims that the professionalism of teaching should be reviewed and teachers should become proficient after ten years of training in order to enhance the profession and give it the value it should have in such an advanced society.

Still, those advocating for privatization of schools say that public institutions are mediocre and should become charter schools, parents should have the choice to send their children to better institutions where they would have better access to education and would be assisted closely to increase their performance on the standardized tests. From this perspective, according to Ravitch, education is viewed as a business opportunity, neglecting its core principle of equality of access to knowledge.

In order to break free from the standardized testing and stop blaming teachers and children for low test scores, Ravitch suggests some alternatives to promote and improve public schooling in America. She says that the issues should be tackled as early as the pregnancy phase, that pre-natal care should be administered to all mothers no matter their race or social status. Quality early childhood education should start around the age of three for children of different social backgrounds and funding should be made available to decrease class size and refine public schools infrastructure. Teachers should teach more and test less. In fact, Ravitch calls for a change in curriculum in order to prioritize arts and languages just as much as mathematics and reading. She argues that the marginalization of these subjects decreases the motivation and creativity of children in schools and in life. She asserts that there is no need for privatization of schools in America, but a reform that should benefit all children and not only the privileged ones. For America to compete with other nations, its educational system should be rehabilitated and renewed completely to meet all children’s needs and to put an end to segregation in America’s schooling system.

As I listened to Ravitch talk about students’ low performance on standardized tests and decreasing motivation and a lack of imagination among children, I could not help but remember Robinson’s book The Element, and his video about Changing Education Paradigms, where he calls for a reform of the educational system and curriculum to allow children to regain their power of imagination and innovation, while ending the era of mass schooling and standardized testing, where schools look more like manufactures that produce data  and are measured by the annual testing.  If education would continue to be seen as an area of economic interest and schools as for-profit organizations, then education would lose its fundamental function as a basic human right that should be accessed by each and every one of us no matter where we come from, what we believe in, and where we are headed.

Look to the Horizon: Education Reform Extends Far Beyond the School

There is much debate in education theory as to how a mass system of education should be structured in order to provide opportunity for every child. There is also debate as to the meaning of education, whether it should help students gain an understanding of life and their role in society, or rather to become recognized as a competent – and competitive – asset to the workforce and economy. I would argue that the United States focuses on the latter. This means that a proper education is often the only route to professional success, and therefore, those without access to a good education are often prescribed to fail.

The United States is home to many of the world’s most revered academic institutions, yet for many, primary and secondary public education is failing. Why is this? There is much discussion about how a system of education should be structured in order to provide every child with opportunities for success. Currently, it can be said that the U.S. system has adopted what can loosely be defined as the “conservative restoration,” combining two, often contradictory, theoretical backgrounds of neoliberalism and neoconservativism. Neoliberalism calls for the marketization of education, and neoconservativism calls for harsh standardization (Apple, 1993). This type of system pushes for school choice, the privatization of schools (charters, for example), yet also often unattainable standards in public schools. Many assumed this would lead to a better system overall because of market competition. What has actually resulted is the deterioration of the public system, and the widening of the gap between rich and poor. Those who have the means to choose better, more resourceful schools (which are often private schools) do so, while those in poverty are stuck in public schools that do not have the resources or infrastructure to support the children they teach.

In 2002, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was mandated by the Bush administration in hopes of bringing equilibrium in education (Ravitch, 2011). Through implementing high stakes testing, the goal was to find public schools which are failing, get rid of bad teachers, and give students the opportunity to choose where they go to school, with the expectation that everyone will win. 2014 (the end date of NCLB) has come and gone, and arguably, the end goal was not achieved. The United States is now struggling between a failing public education system, and the rise of for-profit charter schools and voucher systems. As NCLB has ended, it is imperative for the U.S. government to enact education reform that will bring positive change. How do we begin to do this? The answer, in my opinion, lies outside of the school system.

At the end of her speech at Lehigh University on February 10, 2015, Diane Ravitch listed about ten suggestions that she finds vital for school reform. Many of these included the provision of resources in all schools, yet others also extended to prenatal care and support for young mothers, and importantly, the need to attack the root causes of our failing education system: poverty and segregation.  I, personally, could not agree with her more. Education is not solely the institution of schooling – it occurs on a daily basis from the moment a child is born. If there is no familial support for a child in their home and wider community, a school cannot be looked at to provide this support, and every child cannot be expected to achieve the same level.  If our government were to focus on policies which would ensure that every child would receive support from the time they take their first breath, regardless of their social, economic, racial or familial background, I believe the success of students would grow exponentially. Further, I would be inclined to call for a shift of curriculum focus to that which fosters in every student a perspective that can identify differences – be it cultural, economic, racial, or moral, to name a few – and seek to understand them, and the commonality that can be found in the differences. We are all human, after all, and I believe we are all searching for them same answers. A successful school system can help us achieve that.

Sources:

Apple, M. (1993). The politics of official knowledge: Does a national curriculum make sense? Teachers College Record,     95(2), 222 – 241.

Ravitch, D. (2011). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Chasing a Passion or Leaving Others Behind?

After reading “The Death and the Life of the Great American School Systems” and watching Diane Ravitch speak on how charter schools “have become in many communities a force intended to disrupt the traditional notion of public schooling” by “siphoning away the most motivated students” and resources from the public schools, I have been feeling torn and slightly guilty, as I have my daughter enrolled in a charter school. Since her first week in charter school three years ago, I have not questioned this decision. Like most parents, I want the best for my child, but now I have to ask myself whether that decision is contributing to the problems public schools face?

It wasn’t because I was unhappy or dissatisfied with the public school system that I transferred my daughter to an alternative public school. I believe that it was my daughter’s motivation that brought her to the Arts Academy Charter School. I’m not sure if I would have agreed for her to leave her public school if she wasn’t as motivated as she is. In fact, before deciding to enroll her in the charter school, I was skeptical about whether she would receive as good of an education as was available in her original school. My daughter has a learning difference and I was afraid that the charter school wouldn’t have the same resources needed for her success. She was determined to go to the charter school to explore her passion and to be able to spend part of the day doing what she loves to do – figure skating. So we looked into it and I was pleased with the information I received. I believe there has to be some type of motivation for attending any school other than public school. It takes some effort on both the student’s and parent’s part. In the case of my daughter’s charter school, students have to be motivated by having some type of interest in art, otherwise why would they bother going to school there?

How do we get all students to be motivated? Sir Ken Robinson states in The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything:

“The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed — it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.” (p. 238)

I believe there are public schools as well as charter schools that are succeeding at this, while there are some that are failing to do so. Unfortunately, in the case of most public schools, they aren’t equipped to personalize education as there are too many students with a vast amount of interests. Discovering each student’s talents would take too much time away from focusing on standardized tests in Math & Science. This doesn’t leave much room for the teachers to foster creativity. While many charter schools are focusing on a particular interest of the student and have like-minded students attending their schools.

Like traditional public schools, charter schools are funded by tax dollars. In Pennsylvania, the school district of residence of each student is responsible for funding the charter school. The formula, set by the state, is based on the district per student operational cost from the prior year less certain federal reimbursements along with expenditures for facilities, transportation, and adult education. In general, the school districts must give about 20-30 percent less than what the state gives the district per student. This formula has been controversial because every time a student leaves the district, it hurts the traditional public school’s budget with their fixed costs. Another controversy is that some of the charter schools are profit-driven, benefiting large corporations and entrepreneurs. While there are some money-making opportunistic charter schools, there are some that struggle with funding just as much as the traditional funding schools do. There has been agreement on both sides that the formula which hasn’t changed since 1997 needs to be fixed to make the system more equitable.

“Without knowledge and understanding, one tends to become a passive spectator rather than an active participant in the great decisions of our time.” This quote by Diane Ravitch really resonates with me. Choosing to have my daughter attend a charter school that is not focused on profiting financially but on providing an education that enriches the lives of their students and inspires them to greater achievement, I believe is not contributing to the problem. Not being aware that there is a problem does contribute to it. It is important to educate parents and the taxpayers about the issues that we face in education and to demand the policy makers to make changes for a more equitable system that can provide the resources and motivation for all students. With the “knowledge and understanding” there is a greater chance for success and change over time.

References

Commonwealth Foundation. (2011). Charter School Funding in Pennsylvania http://www.commonwealthfoundation.org/research/detail/charter-school-funding-in-pennsylvania

Hardy, D. (2014). So the charter funding formula is unfair – but to whom? http://thenotebook.org/october-2014/147728/so-charter-funding-formula-unfair-to-whom

Ravitch, D. (2010). The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. New York: Basic Books.

Robinson, K. (2013). Finding your element: How to discover your talents and passions and transform your life. Penguin UK.

Dreaming big: Diane Ravitch can talk educational policy form, but walking it out is a different story

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The audience packed tightly into Lehigh University’s Baker Hall on Tuesday February 10th in anticipation of hearing Diane Ravitch’s controversial approach to stifle our government’s current efforts towards school reform. Ravitch presented her argument through a witty self-debate that vehemently defended the American public school system and fought against any interventions that posed to threaten it such as privatization, choice/voucher systems, and the establishment of charter schools. Her reasoning was compelling: transforming education into a for-profit, business-like industry turns students into commodities, encourages efficiency and money over student innovation, and attempts to, in her eyes, inaccurately quantify the abstract character of intellect through the use of standardized measures. She also argued that permitting school choice through voucher systems would not result in academic competition between schools that would increase quality of education, but rather leave schools’ disparities and children’s education largely unchanged. This would be likely due to the lack of knowledge and/or interest from low socioeconomic families in changing their children’s schools, the inaccessibility of transportation for the students across towns, the lack of seating available in better schools, and the insignificant amount of vouchers available compared to the extensive needs of many districts.

Ravitch also considered charter schools a major threat to the success of the public education system, pointing out that not only do charter schools students not perform any better than regular public school students on assessments, they have also deviated from their original missions of helping the neediest students to becoming specialized academies that are in many cases operating as an industry and luring away the most motivated students through their attractive, creative programs. In this way, charter schools continue to foster segregation among students by collecting money from states for their newly specialized programs for specialized students, leaving public schools to suffer with the most challenging and expensive heterogeneous student body, including the learning disabled and non-native English speaking children- and to do this under increasingly restrictive funds.

While these arguments are neither epiphanous nor unfamiliar to educators, Ravitch was able to make her position unique by the sheer scope of her perspective. While teachers struggle every day in the classroom to find better, more effective ways to improve their students’ education, Ravitch acknowledged that this struggle is futile on the individual level because the issues hindering academic success remain much bigger than the classroom. Zooming out past a classroom, a school building, a district, and even a state, she posited that the real sources of our current academic system’s failure lay in macro-level influences such as self-interested business powers, misled government policy, and major inadequacies in social services contributing to a lack of academic resources, poor mother and child healthcare, and persisting poverty. Ravitch not only challenges, but places blame on these dominating, powerful overhead forces like private corporations and the federal government that she herself once worked for.

The way Ravitch uses language is her most powerful tool. She purposely chose to present her speech with a dramatic, igniting vocabulary, claiming that she wants to ‘destroy’ the current education reform, that we are ‘failing’ to defend our public schools, we are inhumanely using ‘fear’ and ‘punishment’ to incentivize better assessment scores, that business elites have ‘no place’ in public education, and that for-profit charter schools should be ‘banned by law’. It is this fearless, defiant attitude that separates Ravitch from the masses that agree with her, but it is also the quality that has her labeled as a radical.

She insists that the problems that current education reforms are designed to attack, such as low test scores, are not the true problems at all, but rather the negative consequences of much larger underlying causes such as under-resourced schools, under-trained teachers, poor social services, poverty, and poor health. And while I absolutely agree that these struggles inhibit student’s performance as well as their wellbeing, Ravitch’s suggestion to address these great forces are just as grand as their scale. Ravitch is absolutely correct that a poor, malnourished child attending an under-resourced school is going to face overwhelming barriers to academic success and benefit little from privatization, voucher systems, or charter schools. However, how exactly she plans to eradicate global crises such as poverty and hunger and persuade the federal government to significantly increase funding to public education and improve social services, I have no idea. The importance of addressing these crises is immense, and I do not think anyone is willing to dispute that. However, I would like to ask Diane Ravitch how she plans to practically overcome these barriers to educational equality and success, and if stifling current governmental reforms is just the place to start.

Thoughts in Anticipation of Diane Ravitch’s Visit to Lehigh

Diane Ravitch Speaks at Lehigh on her Books, Experiences, and Opinions involving Educationhqdefault

There is so much pressure for change that it actually hinders change. The requirements outlined in the curriculum and standardization are tools for measurement, results, and comparing different demographics. However, the emphasis on the results of those tests has been so great that the curriculum no longer promotes education quality and creativity.

I am writing this blog in anticipation of Diane Ravitch’s visit to Lehigh University. After reading some of her work including chapters from her book, Diane Ravitch was the Assistant Secretary of education during the George H.W. Bush administration. She was involved in the process of creating and implementing the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. The act proposed that all states have to ensure that all students would meet the national standards through testing. By raising the bar each year, the goal of NCLB was to ensure that all students were passing by 2014 (last year!). 14 years ago the proposal sounded great and possible; however, here we are one year after the expected year of success and nothing has changed in education. Let’s ignore the name of it and just focus on what it proposed.

The first issue, as with many educational reforms, is that it sounds so perfect that it is almost impossible to argue against it. Especially with a name such as “No Child Left Behind”, anyone who attempts to critique it sounds inhumane. After all, who would want to leave any children behind? There were some good amendments in the law, but the bad ones outweigh the good. For instance, there is no time or funding for the tutoring that is mandatory for children that are below standards. Teachers do not have time to focus on helping the students that are behind because they have to ensure the entire class is following the curriculum. Teachers have to choose between spending extra time with students who are behind or spend that time moving everyone else forward by following the curriculum. Both choices are not possible. In either case, the teacher is not meeting a standard.

Another issue is that the law allows for each state to set its own educational standards to meet. Some states’ standards are so low that nearly everyone can pass them to ensure they receive their state funding. Although the school may be technically passing, that does not mean that all of the students are on a proficient learning level for their grade. Teachers have to teach to meet these low standards which hinder the quality of education. On the other hand, states that actually have high standards for their schools are at risk for having more schools that do not pass. A failing school does not receive federal funding or state funding. As a result, the school does not have the funds to purchase resources or programs needed to help these failing students, which attributes to budget cuts such as firing teaching, cutting programs, and increasing the class size. Either way, the children the law claims will not get left behind, are indeed getting left behind

In The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch quotes Donald T. Campbell who states that “the more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” In other words, the more value placed on standardization and testing to make decisions such as enrollment, classification, and acceptance the more corrupt that system becomes. Standardized tests are used for benchmarking and comparing students, but they have lost their innocence.

There are now teachers teaching to the test or cheating rather than teaching their students information to prepare them to learn, understand, and succeed. Now looking at the Act, without the context and innocence of its name, the amendments seem nearly impossible. This is the problem with curriculum, standardization, and educational reform in society. There is more focus on creating a proposal that sounds good than actually taking time to make sure it IS good. As Diane Ravitch stated, “there are no fads, no shortcuts, no utopias, no silver bullets” in terms of reforms for fixing educational issues. Teachers have to follow a state or national schedule of teaching rather than teaching based on need. Students learn through at different speeds, styles and have different interests so why teach all kids of various cultures, states, social classes, backgrounds, intellect, and who are so simply different through the same methods?

Questions for Diane Ravitch:
• What made you decide to get so actively involved in educational reform through speaking out on your experiences and writing so many informative books?
• With so much emphasis on testing and standards, what do you think would be a good way to measure progress?
• It seems like a major reason reforms do not end up being successful is due to the high demand for fast progress. Quick fixes clearly do not work, but how should an administrator propose and manage an idea that is longer term and avoid the pressure or force of being fired?
• How do you propose a shift in standardization back to being more of a tool for measurement and less of an emphasis in teaching to the test?
• Race to the Top is yet another education law that sounds appealing and optimistic, what are your thoughts on it? What do you think it will take for it to be successful?

Ravitch, D. (2011). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. NY: Basic Books.

Common Core Standards

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For the past few decades public education in the United States has been the subject of major political debates and ideological revisions. One of the most controversial, a product of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers is called the Common Core Standards. The Common Core Standards (CSS) cover K-12 language arts & math. The proponents of the Common Core claim that mastery of these standards ensures that graduating high school students are ready to enter college and the workforce. But there are more things at stake with the common core standards than student success. Introduced in June 2010, the Obama Administration made the adoption of the Common Core Standards a requirement by August 2010 for states competing for a share of the dwindling federal funding for education. Why the rush to implement them?
The answer: it’s not about the students. It’s about the money to be made. David Coleman, one of the architects of the new standards, co-founded a non-profit called Student Achievement Partners to specifically promote the CCS. He’s also the head of the College Board and its cash cows, the SATS and AP program. The vastly profitable standardized testing industry receives multi-million dollar support from a variety of sources—chief among them the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. A staunch supporter of measures and programs that attack teacher unions and promote charter schools, the Gates Foundation also advocates for an increased role for standardized testing.
The Gates Foundation (along with other private foundations) has funded David Coleman’s College Board to the tune of 31 million dollars. It also has granted over six million to promoting the Common Core Standards. Its partner in the venture, General Electric, has donated a generous 18 million. What these groups have in common is a privatizing agenda that seeks to funnel public money into corporate hands.
But while advocates of the Common Core standards claim they will ensure student success, they don’t seem to care much about students at all. In his presentation at the New York State Education Building in April 2011, David Coleman declared that teachers must tell students: “When you grow up in this world you realize people don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.” With an education system geared toward teaching to standard-driven tests, there’s no need for children to learn to think critically or creatively. Is this healthy for a democracy?
Notwithstanding substantial financial backing, the Common Core Standards have come under fire. Diane Ravitch, a Research Professor of Education at NYU and former US Assistant Secretary of Education, states:

President Obama and Secretary Duncan often say that the Common Core standards were developed by the states and voluntarily adopted by them. This is not true. They were developed by an organization called Achieve and the National Governors Association, both of which were generously funded by the Gates Foundation. There was minimal public engagement in the development of the Common Core. Their creation was neither grassroots nor did it emanate from the states…standards are being imposed on the children of this nation despite the fact that no one has any idea how they will affect students, teachers, or schools. We are a nation of guinea pigs, almost all trying an unknown new program at the same time.

Stephen Krashen, an emeritus professor of education at USC says, “The mediocre performance of American students on international tests seems to show that our schools are doing poorly. But students from middle-class homes who attend well-funded schools rank among the best in the world on these tests, which means that teaching is not the problem. The problem is poverty.”
Journalist Valerie Strauss has also spoken against CCS. She writes in the Washington Post that when it comes to Common Core Standards, early childhood education experts and educators were not part of the process.

The promoters of the standards claim they are based in research. They are not. There is no convincing research, for example, showing that certain skills or bits of knowledge (such as counting to 100 or being able to read a certain number of words) if mastered in kindergarten will lead to later success in school. Two recent studies show that direct instruction can actually limit young children’s learning. At best, the standards reflect guesswork, not cognitive or developmental science.

Standards for public education are a fine idea. But when they serve as a Trojan horse to hide a profit-making agenda, we should beware of bureaucracies and private foundations bearing gifts. The common core standards demand a vast increase in testing—and testing isn’t free: school districts must now provide funds for new computers, new software, trainings, teacher hours, and grading services. Students who could be learning new things are instead only learning how to take a series of tests. The question is who will pay for this testing—and who benefits—our children or corporations?

(De)Grading Schools: The PennCAN’s Scam

school grading

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.

Charter Schools—A Real Choice?

Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are managed privately. Growing in popularity across the United States, this public/private hybrid is often presented as one of the solutions to the broken public school system supported by both political parties. Today, over two million or 4.2 percent of students in the US attend charter schools. Yet, there is not much evidence to support such an unprecedented expansion of charters across the United States.

The idea of charter schools originated in the late 1980s and was first introduced by Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. He felt there was a need for teachers “to create a small school that would focus on the neediest students, those who had dropped out and those who were disengaged from school and likely to drop out.”  Later on in 1993, “Shanker turned against the charter school idea when he realized that for-profit organizations saw it as a business opportunity and were advancing an agenda of school privatization.”

Even though there’s little evidence that charter schools are effective, they steadily drain funds that could be going toward improving public schools. In 2009, a study by StanfordUniversity’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) concluded that only 17% of charter schools delivered superior education to their public school counterparts.  (CREDO) also showed that performance at approximately half of the charters surveyed were not substantially different and, in fact, about 37% were worse than the traditional public schools.

Charter school problems don’t just revolve around student academic success.  Recently, the US Government Accountability Office claimed that charter schools “do not enroll students with disabilities at the same rate as traditional public schools” even though it is required by law. There is also a growing concern among civil rights groups that charter schools can be exclusive and more racially divided. In a Civil Rights Project report it is stated that “charter schools comprise a divisive and segregated sector of our already deeply stratified public school system.”

How to explain the continued support for an idea that clearly doesn’t work?

In California, philanthrocapitalists like The Waltons (of Walmart) are furiously at work dismantling the public system there and replacing it with privatized charters. In Chicago,Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has been a proponent of charter schools. While closing down over 54 traditional public schools just recently, he aims to “add 60 charter schools in the next five years with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is trying to expand charters across the country.”  And most recently in New Jersey, Mark Zuckerberg has donated millions to Governor Christie’s educational reform aimed at expansion of charter schools. According to Huffington Post, “This puts Zuckerberg well in the mainstream of billionaire tech executives like Bill Gates, who pump millions of dollars into efforts to encourage charter schools and put pressure on teachers’ unions.”

Propaganda films like Waiting for Superman pander to both sides of the political fence, promoting charters primarily as a way to attack one of the last bastions of the American labor movement—our teacher unions.  This dismal film is part of a far larger effort, a new “economy of knowledge production” fueled by corporate interests hell-bent on siphoning public funds to private pockets. As critics argue, private think tanks are “eclipsing independent university researchers” and sound data is replaced with talking points.

Charter schools do not offer a real equitable choice. Because of their limited space, they segregate a key population that could have made a profound difference in improving the educational experience of all the children in the community. They also take away a meaningful portion of funds that could be used to improve the traditional public schools. Charter schools are not a real choice and should be urgently reconsidered as the alternative to solving public schools’ problems.