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HelenGymHelen Gym is a member of the Rethinking Schools editorial board, but that is only one of many hats she wears in her life as a mom, spouse, educator, and not-to-be-reckoned-with activist in Philadelphia.  The  Philadelphia Magazine recently ran this article about Helen, and the anecdote that best captures Helen’s passion and impact is this:

At A.S. Jenks, a quality K-4 school in South Philadelphia, only the kindergartners avoided enrollment in split grades. The parents were livid. But they had no idea how to actually change matters until they connected with Gym, who coached them in the art of activism. They filed complaints. They got in touch with the press. They organized a protest (in the rain) that lured the television cameras.

It worked. According to parents at the school, superintendent William Hite Jr. intervened personally. “I wrote on my Facebook page: ‘When I grow up, I want to be Helen Gym,’” says Jennifer Miller, a Jenks parent. “She really makes you want to fight for your children.”

We would argue that Helen makes us want to fight for all children, as do so many of our editorial board members-many of whom have been committed to social justice for decades.

Here’s more from the Philadelphia Magazine article. Read the full article about Helen here.

Helen Gym advances, and Mayor Nutter inches warily back. She waves a thick stack of papers at him, each sheath a complaint lodged by parents lamenting the calamitous conditions in Philadelphia’s reeling public schools. There’s the kid with dangerous asthma at the school without a nurse on hand. The dyslexic, orphaned high-school senior applying for colleges with no counselor to lean on. The bullying victim who fled Overbrook High only to find it impossible to enroll at another school.

“This is what we’re fighting against,” Gym tells Nutter. The Mayor is just a few yards from his office door, but he’s the one shifting his feet, looking to get away.

Minutes earlier, Gym had wrapped up a news conference in the ornate Mayor’s Reception Room, where, with the assistance of City Council, she’d usurped a podium usually used by Nutter and his invited guests. Gym and her allies were there to tout their latest pressure tactic: written complaints designed to compel the state to meet basic education standards and shake loose some badly needed dollars for the district.

“It would be nice to have your support, Mayor,” Gym tells him. Nutter issues a few noncommittal mumbles, cleans his glasses, and back-steps for the stairway. Gym shrugs. Powerful figures often look for the exits when she approaches.

That’s what happens when you develop a rep as perhaps Philadelphia’s preeminent public agitator. Relentless, whip-smart, meticulously prepared and utterly fearless, Gym—a private citizen who works without the heft of any meaningful institutional support—has managed to build herself one of the city’s largest bully pulpits . . .

A youthful 45, Gym is as ferocious as ever, and her public profile has never been larger. But these days, she’s laboring mightily not so much to remake the system as to preserve what’s left of it.

Philadelphia has become a premier battleground in a high-stakes national debate over the future of K-12 education. On one side are the self-styled reformers, a group with not much patience and a thirst for bold experimentation. On the other sit the teachers unions and, more interestingly, activists like Gym, whose opposition to the reform agenda is layered and nuanced but boils down to an aversion to the dismantling of traditional public schools and a deep-seated mistrust of the reformers’ motives.

Read more…

Articles by Helen Gym in Rethinking Schools:

School Closures Rock Philadelphia

Tiger Moms and the Model Minority Myth

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We “soft-launched” our fall issue on our website over the weekend.  Perhaps you already checked it out, or if you’re a subscriber, you have the magazine in hand already.  If you haven’t seen it, here are a few highlights.

We are proud of this issue, and we hope you enjoy reading it!

v28.1Of Mice and Marginalization,” by English teacher Michelle Kenney, is the cover story. Under pressure from parents, Kenney assigns a classic: Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Her students’ reactions—from cutting class to lifting essays off the internet—lead to a deeper understanding of what’s wrong with “the canon.”

In “Standing Up for Tocarra,” Tina Owen describes her dilemma when a homophobic minister preaches about the “sin” of a transgender student at the student’s funeral.

Our curriculum editor Bill Bigelow uses a classroom mixer to introduce students to Bill McKibben’s important article on “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” Check out “The Mystery of the 3 Scary Numbers.”

In “Rethinking Shit: Excrement and Equity,” social studies teacher Noah Zeichner and his students explore the worldwide sanitation crisis.

Charter Schools and the Future of Public Education,” by Rethinking Schools editor Stan Karp, puts the history of charter schools in context, then analyzes their current role and impact.

Our editorial is on school closings, “Clear-Cutting Our Schools

Let us know in the comments what you think, and which article(s) you like best or plan to use.

If you don’t subscribe to our magazine

We’re happy to make a number of articles from every issue of our magazine free for nonsubscribers. But subscriptions (and donations) sustain our work. So if you like what you’re reading, go ahead and do us both a favor: subscribe now for just $19.95. With your new subscription, you’ll gain access to the entire fall issue and to our archives.

Thanks for your support!

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On Friday, Rethinking Schools editor Stan Karp delivered a speech “The Trouble with Common Core” to Portland area parents, educators, administrators, elected officials, among others.  (See our summer editorial with the same title.)

Watch and share.

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We’re pleased to announce that the summer issue of Rethinking Schools magazine features a special forum with three perspectives on edTPA, the high-stakes test for new teachers that is being piloted in teacher education programs around the country.

V27-4

We know edTPA is an issue of great interest to everyone in the field of education as we consider how best to maintain teaching as a profession.

In that spirit, we invite you to read the articles and join the critical conversation about edTPA in the comments section of this blog post.

We also invite you to consider donating or subscribing to Rethinking Schools if you don’t already do so.  Because we feel so strongly about the need for education and reflection on the edTPA, we opened up the majority of this issue to nonsubscribers, but as a nonprofit independent publisher, we rely on your donations and subscriptions to keep us going.

Thanks for reading, donating, subscribing, and supporting critical conversation.

Sincerely,

The staff and editors at Rethinking Schools

The articles in “A Forum on the edTPA”

Linda Darling-Hammond and Maria E. Hyler argue that the edTPA will lead to better teachers and more professional respect. Their article is titled “The Role of Performance Assessment in Developing Teaching as a Profession.”

In “Wrong Answer to the Wrong Question,” Barbara Madeloni and Julie Gorlewski disagree. The edTPA distorts the teacher education process, they say, and opens the door to Pearson reaping more profits and power.

What’s a Nice Test Like You Doing in a Place Like This?” by Rethinking Schools editor Wayne Au, puts the discussion in the context of corporate education “reform” as he shares his experience with the test in his own teacher education program.

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Below we preview our Action Education column from our Summer issue, about the massive school closings in Philadelphia. Helen Gym, a Rethinking Schools editor, is a parent and long-time activist in Philadelphia who has been one of the leaders of the movement to save public schools. On June 7, after the magazine went to press, the district announced a staggering layoff of 3,783 employees. This will only further devastate the public schools in Philadelphia and fuel the fires of privatization and corporate education reform. We’ve included some resources and links at the end of this post to help you stay up-to-date with the fight to save public schools in Philadelphia–and across the country.

School Closures Rock Philadelphia

by Helen Gym

HelenGymThis spring, the School District of Philadelphia vot­ed to close down 24 schools, about one in 10 pub­lic schools, affecting nearly 10,000 students across the district. The vote followed months of protest and community opposition, and was backed by Demo­cratic party leadership in the city, primarily Mayor Michael Nutter—co-chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors—and by newly sprouted nonprofit organizations focused on school “transformation” models.

The district’s push to close schools, in classic “shock doctrine” style, is playing out in the context of Philly’s third massive fiscal crisis and its 12th year under state receivership. A late spring school budget stripped Philly schools of all non-legally mandated personnel, resulting in zero secretaries, assistant principals, counsel­ors, librarians, and classroom assistants. Also zeroed out were all sports, extracur­ricular and gifted programs, and book and supplies money. Summer negotia­tions over teachers’ contracts are under­way, with the district demanding more than $131 million in givebacks and elimi­nating most teacher protection.

Philadelphia’s school closings plan is a massive disinvestment, not only in public education, but also in vulnerable communities. Swaths of Philadelphia are now “education deserts” where no public neighborhood school option exists. Nine of the 24 schools closed are high schools, disrupting young people during their most critical years toward graduation. Parents have raised concerns that the school closings are the tipping point of a disinvestment spiral that threatens every school in every neighborhood of the city.

Philadelphia’s plan follows patterns well documented in other cities where mass school closures have occurred:

  • Role of Private Philanthropy: A local foundation solicited millions of dollars from private donors to contract directly with a private outfit, the Boston Consulting Group, to develop a mutually agreed upon plan to restructure Phila­delphia schools. Two parent groups and the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP have filed a complaint with the city ethics board that the foundation, its private do­nors, and the Boston Consulting Group engaged in lobbying rather than philan­thropy. The foundation’s head suddenly resigned after receiving preliminary no­tice of the intent to file the ethics com­plaint.
  • Concurrent mass charter expansion: Philadelphia’s school closures were accompanied by mass charter school expansion, a specified “contract deliv­erable” in the agreement between the Boston Consulting Group and its private donors. The same year it closed 24 public schools, the district expanded charters by more than 5,000 seats and closed only one of 26 charters up for renewal. Char­ters with school performance index fig­ures that ranked them among the worst in the district received five-year renewals and expansions. Charter expansion is es­timated to add more than $139 million to the district’s costs over a five-year period.
  • No achievement gains: Local re­searchers found that there was no sig­nificant difference in academic quality between closing schools and receiving schools. More than 80 percent of the dis­located students will transfer to a school no better than the one they currently at­tend, according to Research for Action. Moreover, the district’s unprecedented cuts to local school budgets—25 percent across the board—make already fragile receiving schools even more vulnerable amidst a massive effort to merge student populations.
  • Disparate impact: School closures overwhelmingly targeted low-income black neighborhoods. Although the dis­trict has a 55 percent African American student population, schools targeted for closure were more than 80 percent Af­rican American. Philadelphia’s Action United was among a group of organiza­tions across the country that signed onto a civil rights complaint with the U.S. De­partment of Education around disparate racial impact of school closures. The De­partment of Education has said it will in­vestigate. In addition, many of the schools targeted for closure had high percent­ages of special needs students. One clos­ing high school had a 30 percent special ed population and was merging with a school with a 33 percent special ed popu­lation. The district average is 14 percent.
  • Fast-tracked process: The district suspended the traditional process for closing schools and instead put schools on an accelerated timeline, limiting time and opportunities for public discussion and debate. One elementary school, M. H. Stanton, had fewer than 60 days notice between the announcement of its closure and the formal vote to close the school. Stanton was the subject of a 1994 Oscar-winning documentary, I Am a Promise, about its success in serving a low-income, predominantly black community.
  • Questionable monetary savings: District officials have not disclosed a full account of transition costs and other ex­penses associated with closing schools. A 2012 Pew study of six school districts found that school officials frequently overestimate cost savings. In early May, Chicago officials admitted they may have overestimated savings from school closures by at least $122 million. Wash­ington, D.C., reported that 23 school closings had not only failed to reap any savings, but also had actually cost the district nearly $40 million in expenses.

Although these elements have a familiar ring, the opposition to school closings in Philadelphia has generated encouraging signs. A large communi­ty-labor coalition formed with signifi­cant support and engagement from the American Federation of Teachers. This group, the Philadelphia Coalition Ad­vocating for Public Schools (PCAPS), organized town halls and has focused on a “community schools” vision. Student walkouts and rallies have started to take center stage. A broad coalition of com­munity advocates highlighted the in­consistency of mass school closures with mass charter expansion. As a result, the district announced no charter expan­sions for the following year. And a strong protest movement from parents and communities across the city seems likely to result in some level of increased fund­ing for schools.

In addition, Philadelphia has ben­efited from a vibrant, independent edu­cation media, including the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, a citywide edu­cation newspaper, and the Media Mobi­lizing Project, which has created videos and other storytelling vehicles to docu­ment the resistance.

In this critical moment, school clo­sures in Philadelphia should not be seen simply as an end in itself but as a means to an end that has yet to be determined. Where the final endpoint lies will be de­cided in the struggle between grassroots community activists and the moneyed and political interests seemingly bent on dismantling public education across the country.

Additional readings and resources:

  • Teacher Action Group-Philadelphia has launched a “Faces of the Layoffs” site where people can view why we need to fight to restore these positions.
  • Parents United for Public Education (of which Helen Gym is a co-founder) issued this statement: “This is not a school.”
  • Media Mobilizing Project has posted a video about the national pushback against corporate ed reform.

Is education activism important to you? We feature stories about communities fighting for public schools in every issue of our magazine. Subscribe today.

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As you are no doubt aware, increasingly powerful corporate interests are attempting to reduce teaching and learning to what’s on a standardized test.  We have all seen these tests be used to punish students, discipline teachers, withhold funds from our schools, and even close schools down. However, a movement of parents, students, and teachers has been growing around the country that has been pushing back against these tests and calling for education and assessment that is relevant to students and empowers our youth.

In Seattle, teachers at the school where I teach, Garfield High School, announced in January, 2013 that they would refuse to give the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test, calling it a waste of time and resources. The boycott soon spread to other schools around the city.  Our boycott was very successful during the winter testing period.

However, now the Seattle School District is asking us to give the MAP test again for the spring testing session. In response, we are calling for an international day of action in the struggle against flawed tests and in support of the MPA test boycotting teachers on May Day, Wednesday, May 1.   We encourage you to participate in the day of action in any way you and your fellow educators feel is appropriate. Please read the call to action below and send us your statements of solidarity.

In struggle for educational justice,

Jesse Hagopian
Teacher, Garfield High School
Editorial Associate, Rethinking Schools

Educational Justice Has No Borders

Join the May Day International Day of Solidarity with the Seattle MAP Test Boycott

Seattle’s boycotting teachers need your support for their “educators’ spring” uprising against the MAP test.

ScraptheMap

Seattle Education Association in solidarity with Garfield High School.

Dear educators, parents, and students around the world:

On January 9, 2013, teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle announced a unanimous vote to boycott the district mandated Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test, which they said was not aligned to their curriculum, was a waste of their students’ time and resources, and unfairly targeted the most vulnerable populations. Specifically, Garfield’s teachers expressed their opposition to the fact that English Language Learner students are required to take the MAP test most often, causing them to miss out on vital instructional time in the classroom. In this way, the boycott of the MAP test should be viewed as part of the movement for the rights of immigrants and people from all cultures, nationalities, and linguistic backgrounds to have access to a high quality public education. Garfield High School’s Parent Teacher Student Association and the Associated Student Body Government both voted unanimously to support the teachers’ boycott of the MAP test.

Soon afterwards, several other Seattle schools joined the boycott—Orca, Chief Sealth, Ballard, and Center School.  Teachers at those schools were originally threatened with a 10 day suspension without pay, but because of the overwhelming solidarity from parents, teachers, and students from across the country, the Seattle School District backed down and declined to discipline any of the boycotting educators. Since then, several other schools have joined the boycott, a survey of Seattle teachers was conducted that shows overwhelming opposition to the MAP test at every grade level, and the movement for quality assessment has spread throughout the nation.

Now the Seattle teachers need your support again.

The spring offering of the MAP test produces the scores that are supposed to be used in Seattle’s teacher evaluations.  For this reason the Seattle School District could take a harsher stance against boycotting teachers this time around.

May Day is traditionally a day of international workers solidarity. What better time to show your support for the teachers who have risked their livelihoods to advocate for quality assessment and for our resources to be used to support learning rather than endless testing?

We, the Seattle MAP test boycotting teachers, pledge our solidarity to teachers around the world who are struggling for an education system that supports and empowers our students with curriculum and assessments that are relevant to their lives. In turn, we ask for your support as we struggle for these very goals.

Possible solidarity actions include:

Furthermore, we, the MAP test boycotting teachers, would very much appreciate being informed about struggles teachers are engaged in around the world.  Please let us know if there are any ways we can support your efforts for educational justice.

In Solidarity,

Seattle MAP Test Boycott Committee

Learn more:

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By Ann Berlak

For the first time since I can remember some members of the American Educational Research Association (AERA)—the largest association of educators and educational researchers in the world—are taking a public stand at AERA’s annual meeting in San Francisco against the corporatization, standardization and privatization of education.

reclaimaera-thumbnailSadly, the leadership of AERA has invited Arne Duncan, who represents and supports the technocratic, dehumanizing forces of privatization to speak on Tuesday, April 30, 3:45 p.m. at the Hilton Hotel. This and other actions by the AERA serve to support the dismantling of education as a public good, narrow the possibilities of what it means to research, know, learn and share our understandings, and marginalize and silence voices of dissent.

We are inviting teachers, administrators, students, parents and concerned community members to join those of us at AERA as we make visible our support for public education and democratic empowerment

Here’s how you can get involved:

In person. 

Contact your friends and colleagues in the Bay area and join our protest.  We especially are looking for Oakland and San Francisco parents and teachers to join us in the on-the-ground protest.

Virtually. 

Read the statement from AERA members:

As members of the American Educational Research Association we are committed to:

  • free and equal public education for all as a cornerstone of democracy.
  • research, scholarship and policy making that grows from and with communities  that are impacted by these.
  • knowledge production as varied, multiple and contextual.
  • research, scholarship and policy free from the interests of corporations and venture philanthropists.
  • public education-at every level-as a space for social imagination and the practice of freedom.

AERA has failed to take a public stance in support of these commitments and has not provided space for meaningful dialogue about how we can enact these commitments. Instead, AERA supports: 

  • narrowing of ‘acceptable’ research to demands of quantification and standardization.
  • affiliation with corporate sponsors like Pearson, Inc.
  • denial of the impact of corporate influences when it accepts for publication articles authored by writers from corporate sponsored think tanks.
  • complacency in the face of the ongoing assault on education and incursions of corporations into research and practice led by such actors as: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and Rupert Murdoch’s Wireless Generation

Case in point: invited “education researcher’ Secretary Duncan whose policies have led to:

  • school closings; increased testing; narrowing of curriculum; undermining of collective bargaining; increasing of for profit charter schools; increased corporate influence in education.
  • students, teachers, parents, and scholars threatened, silenced, and abandoned.

We invite our colleagues, students, and parents to refuse the corporatization of education, build alliances to resist its policies, and join the conversation as we imagine education as the practice of freedom.

Ann Berlak is a regular contributor to Rethinking Schools and most recently wrote  “Coming Soon to Your Favorite Credential Program: National Exit Exams” on the early California version of edTPA in our summer 2010 issue.

Related Resources:

V23-3Spring 2009:  The Duncan Myth

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It’s time to refocus public policy on providing excellent public schools for all.

by Stan Karp

Previously published in the NJEA Review, March 2013.

Somewhere along the way, nearly every teacher dreams of starting a school. I know I did.

More than once during the 30 years I taught English and journalism to high school students in Paterson, I imagined that creating my own school would open the door to everything I wanted as a teacher:

  • Colleagues with a shared vision of teaching and learning
  • Freedom from central office bureaucracy
  • A welcoming school culture that reflected the lives of our students and families
  • Professional autonomy that nourished innovation and individual and collective growth
  • School-based decision-making that pushed choices about resources, priorities, time and staffing closer to the classrooms where it matters the most.

But reality can be hard on daydreams, and I got a glimpse of how complicated these issues are when my large comprehensive high school embraced the reform-trend-of-the-day and moved to create small theme academies inside the larger school. As the lead teacher of a new Communications Academy, I soon faced a host of thorny questions: Who would our new academy serve? What would the selection process be? How would the academy share space and resources with the rest of the school? How would our academy team be formed, and what impact would overlapping circles of authority have on teachers’ contractual and evaluation processes? What would be the effect of the new academies on the larger school around us, which still opened its doors to everyone?

I think of this experience often as I follow the polarized debate over charter schools. I know there are many committed charter school teachers who share the dream of teaching in a progressive, student-centered school. But I also know the charter school movement has changed dramatically in recent years in ways that have undermined its original intentions.

While small schools and theme academies have faded as a focus of reform initiatives, charters have expanded rapidly. They raise similar issues and many more. In fact, given the growing promotion of charters by federal and state policymakers as a strategy to ”reform” public education, the stakes are much higher.

According to Education Week, there are now more than 6,000 publicly funded charter schools in the United States enrolling about 4 percent of all students. Since 2008, the number of charter schools has grown by almost 50 percent, while over that same period nearly 4,000 traditional public schools have closed.[i] This represents a huge transfer of resources and students from our public education system to the publicly funded, but privately managed charter sector. These trends raise concerns about the future of public education and its promise of quality education for all.

The origin of charter schools

KTPcoverCharter schools have an interesting history with origins that are often overlooked. The concept of charter schools was promoted by Albert Shanker and the American Federation of Teachers in New York City in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They were originally conceived as teacher-run schools that would serve students struggling inside the traditional system and would operate outside the reach of the administrative bureaucracy and the highly politicized big city school board. Charters also drew on early rounds of small school experiments initiated by teachers or community activists, often as alternatives to the city’s large comprehensive high schools. [ii]

But within a few years, Shanker grew concerned that the charters and small specialty schools were fragmenting the district, creating tiers of schools serving decidedly different populations with unequal access. He also feared they were weakening the collective power of the teachers union to negotiate over district-wide concerns and policies. So he pulled back his support for charters, at a time when there were still very few, and focused on the standards movement, which became the primary reform framework for many teacher union leaders.

But charters continued to grow slowly, and beginning with Minnesota in 1991, states began to pass laws to promote the formation of charters, partly as a model of reform and partly to build a parallel system outside the reach of both teacher unions and, in some cases, the federal and state requirements to serve and accept all students as the public system must do. Gradually this charter movement attracted the  attention of political and financial interests who saw the public school system as a “government monopoly” ripe for market reform.

In the past decade, the character of the charter school movement has changed dramatically. It’s been transformed from community-based, educator-initiated local efforts designed to provide alternative approaches for a small number of students into nationally-funded efforts by foundations, investors and educational management companies to create a parallel, more privatized school system.

Charter laws are different in each  state, but in general charter schools are publicly funded but privately run schools. Few justify the hype they have received in films like “Waiting for “Superman,” and those that do are mostly highly-selective, privately-subsidized schools that have very limited relevance for the public system. It’s like looking for models of public housing by studying luxury condo developments.

How do charter schools measure up?

The most complete national study of charter school performance by CREDO, a research unit at Stanford University that supports charter reform, found that only about one in five charter schools had better test scores than comparable public schools and more than twice as many had lower ones. [iii] Unlike most charter schools, traditional public schools accept all children, including much larger numbers of high needs students. In most states charters also do not face the same public accountability and transparency requirements as public schools, which has led to serious problems of mismanagement, corruption and profiteering.

Invariably beneath accounts of spectacular charter success lie demographics that reveal fewer special needs children, fewer English language learners and fewer numbers of children from the poorest families. This hasn’t stopped the cheerleading for charters coming from some quarters, but it does undermine their credibility as a strategy for improving public schools overall.

Take, for example, the most recent report on New Jersey’s charters that CREDO produced in conjunction with the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE). The press release announcing this long-delayed study claimed it showed that “New Jersey charter public schools significantly outperform their district school peers.” [iv]  Education Commissioner Chris Cerf echoed these claims, saying “the results are clear – on the whole, New Jersey charter school students make larger learning gains in both reading and math than their traditional public school peers.”[v]

RSRcoverBut a closer look at the report raises familiar issues (even putting aside the dubious premise that equates school success with test scores). The report showed that 70 percent of the New Jersey charters studied had the same or lower math scores as the traditional public schools they were compared to; 60 percent scored the same or lower on language arts.

The charters with the best results were clustered in Newark, which includes more selective “No Excuses” charters. These schools serve lower numbers of the highest needs students and have relatively high rates of attrition compared to traditional district schools. Typically, the CREDO report failed to distinguish between levels of student need, lumping students who receive speech therapy with those facing more severe disabilities like autism as “special education” students. “Reduced lunch” students are similarly equated with “free lunch” students facing much deeper levels of poverty. [vi]

More importantly, the report fails to identify a single school characteristic aside from the different demographics of the student population that accounts for the “success” in the limited number of charters where it appears at all. The study also fails to account for the “peer effects” of mixing limited numbers of high needs students with the more selective charter population, while the highest need students are increasingly left behind in growing concentrations in district schools.

A return to segregated schools?

This is where the flaws of charters as a reform strategy start to come into focus. A plan that relies heavily on serving more selective student populations is not only not “scalable,” it has a decidedly negative effect on the district schools left in its wake. Rutgers Professor Bruce Baker has found that the selectivity of Newark charters is having a predictable effect on non-charter district enrollment. Newark charters now enroll about 19 percent of all students, but serve much lower levels of the highest need students. As a result, the percentage of ELL, very poor, and severely handicapped children in Newark Public Schools (NPS) is growing, and Baker notes, “we can expect that those left behind in district schools are becoming a higher and higher need group as charter enrollments expand.” [vii]

Another Newark study commissioned by the district focused on 14,000 students being educated in the 30 highest need elementary schools in the city, both charter and district. Ninety three percent of these students were in district-run schools and only 7 percent were in charter schools. This is segregation, not reform.[viii]

A strong case can be made that the rapid expansion of charters in large urban districts like Newark is undermining their ability to equitably serve all children. This year fund transfers from NPS to charter schools will top $125 million. Even State District Superintendent Cami Anderson, a strong supporter of charters, admitted to the State Board of Education last year this was an unsustainable budget trend for the district. [ix]

In too many places, charters function more like deregulated “enterprise zones” than models of reform, providing subsidized spaces for a few at the expense of the many. They drain resources, staff, and energy for innovation away from other district schools, often while creaming better prepared students and more committed parents. This is especially a problem in big city public systems that urgently need renewal and resources but are increasingly being left behind with the biggest challenges.

None of this is meant to deny the reform impulse that is a real part of the charter movement, and no one questions the desire of parents to find the best options they can for their children. But the original idea behind charter schools was to create “laboratories for innovation” that would nurture reform strategies to improve the public system as a whole. That hasn’t happened. While there are some excellent individual charter schools, nowhere have charters produced a template for effective district-wide reform or equity.

This doesn’t mean charter school teachers and parents are our enemies. On the contrary, we should be allies in fighting some of the counter-productive assessment, curriculum and instructional practices raining down on all of us from above. Where practices like greater autonomy over curriculum or freedom from bureaucratic regulations are valid, they should be extended to all schools, without sacrificing the oversight we need to preserve equity and accountability.

The need to focus on poverty and proven reforms

But the current push for deregulated charters and privatization is doing nothing to reduce the concentrations of 70, 80, and 90 percent poverty that remain the central problem in our urban schools. It’s instructive to contrast charter-driven reform with more equitable approaches. In North Carolina, reform efforts were based on integrating struggling schools in Raleigh with the schools in surrounding Wake County. Efforts were made to improve theme-based and magnet programs at all schools, and the concentration of free/reduced lunch students at any one school was limited to 40 percent or less. The plan led to some of the nation’s best progress on closing gaps in achievement and opportunity. [x]

There are many other factors that make charters unsustainable as a general strategy for improving public education. Significant evidence suggests that charters are part of a market-driven plan to create a less stable, less secure and less expensive teaching staff. Other trends reflect the efforts of well-funded groups working to privatize everything from curriculum to professional development to the making of education policy.

Rethinking Schools (Winter 2010 cover) SuperheroesNationally, charter school teachers are, on average, less experienced, less unionized and less likely to hold state certification than teachers in traditional public schools.[xi] (In a word, cheaper.) Here in New Jersey, the Christie administration has proposed lowering certification standards for charter school teachers and insisted that charter schools be exempt from the much-heralded tenure and evaluation reforms in the TEACHNJ Act passed last year. [xii]

As many as one in four charter school teachers leave every year, about double the turnover rate in traditional public schools. The odds of a teacher leaving the profession altogether are 130 percent higher at charters than traditional public schools, and much of this teacher attrition is related to dissatisfaction with working conditions.[xiii]

Charter schools typically pay less for longer hours. But charter school administrators often earn more than their school-district counterparts. Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone and Eva Moskowitz of the Success Academy Schools, two widely heralded charter school leaders, are each paid close to half a million dollars a year.[xiv] In New Jersey, charter school administrators are exempt from the salary caps imposed on district superintendents.[xv]

Charters raise similar issues in suburban districts. Last year, an application to open a Quest Academy charter school in my hometown of Montclair was a finalist after being previously rejected four times. If approved, the charter would have drawn over $2 million from the district budget. Quest promised to serve a small group of students with “small classes,” “individualized instruction,” and “cutting edge technology.” But it would have left students at Montclair High School with larger classes, less individualized instruction, and less cutting edge technology. It would have eroded programs and staff at a high school that sends over 90 percent of its students to post-secondary education, including over 90 percent of its African-American students.[xvi]

Parents weigh in

This is why grassroots parents groups like Save Our Schools NJ have been pushing back against unwanted charter expansion that undermines the quality and budgets of district schools. Because current New Jersey charter policies do not give a voice to local districts and voters in deciding where to open charters and how to integrate them equitably into the public system, they promote polarization among parents and pockets of privilege instead of district-wide improvement.

I’ve attended too many meetings where polarized groups of charter and public school parents are pitted against each other in contentious, at times ugly debates over resources, facilities and priorities. This polarization has its roots, not just in clashing short-term interests and an inadequate pool of resources, but in conflicting conceptions of the role parents should play in public education. For the charter movement, parents are mainly customers seeking services with no major role in school governance or advocacy for all children. But in a system of universal public education, parents are citizens seeking rights and, collectively, the owner-managers of a fundamental public institution in a democratic society.

To be sure, many of the issues that public school advocates like me criticize in charters–like the tracking, creaming, and unequal resources–exist within the public system too. But public schools have federal, state and district obligations that can be brought to bear. School boards, public budgets, public policies and public officials can be subjected to pressure and held accountable in ways that privatized charters don’t allow. In post-Katrina New Orleans, where next year virtually all students will attend unequal tiers of charter schools, there are now students and families who cannot find any schools to take them.[xvii] We cannot let that happen here.

Still, the march continues

Commissioner Cerf has declared intentions to dramatically expand New Jersey’s charter sector. An NJDOE grant application to the California-based Broad foundation, a major funder of charter school networks, promised, “The percent of high quality public charter schools in New Jersey, as measured by NJDOE’s definition of high quality, will increase by 50 percent by 2014-15.” The Christie Administration has proposed allowing for-profit charters to operate in the state, permitting existing charters to open “satellite campuses” in multiple districts, and opening the door to fly-by-night cyber charters. In recent years, New Jersey’s charter approval process has been marked by inconsistency, secrecy, and scandal.[xviii]

It has become impossible to separate the rapid expansion of charter networks from efforts to privatize public education. Commissioner Cerf has spoken of replacing the current “school system” with “a system of schools.” Former deputy commissioner Andy Smarick campaigned to “replace the district-based system in America’s large cities with fluid, self- improving systems of charter schools.” Governor Christie, a longtime supporter of private school vouchers, was once a registered lobbyist for Cerf’s former company, Edison, Inc., then the largest private education management firm in the nation. [xix]

Inevitably, charter schools have become part of this polarized debate about education policy. Those who believe that business models and market reforms hold the key to solving educational problems have made great strides in attaching their agenda to the urgent need of communities who have too often been poorly served by the current system. But left to its own bottom line logic, the market will do for education what it is has done for housing, health care and employment: create fabulous profits and opportunities for a few and unequal access and outcomes for the many.

Our country has already had more than enough experience with separate and unequal school systems. The counterfeit claim that charter privatization is part of a new “civil rights movement” addressing the deep and historic inequality that surrounds our schools is belied by the real impact of rapid charter growth in cities across the country. At the level of state and federal education policy, charters are providing a reform cover for eroding the public school system and an investment opportunity for those who see education as a business rather than a fundamental institution of democratic civic life.

It’s time to slow down charter expansion and refocus public policy on providing excellent public schools for all. Using charters as a reform strategy has become too much like planting weeds in the garden. Better to tend the soil and help all public schools flower to their full potential.

Stan Karp is director of the Secondary Reform Project for New Jersey’s Education Law Center. He is an editor of Rethinking Schools magazine and was a high school teacher in Paterson for 30 years.

[viii] School Performance in Newark, December, 2012, p. 10

[xi] 10 Things Charter Schools Won’t Tell You, Sarah Morgan, SmartMoney, 12/6/10

[xiii] 10 Things Charter Schools Won’t Tell You, Sarah Morgan, SmartMoney, 12/6/10

[xvi] Letter to NJ Education Commissioner Chris Cerf from Montclair Supt. Frank Alverez, 12/15/11

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Recently Philadelphia school parents and the local chapter of the NAACP filed a complaint with the City Ethics Board alleging that a major foundation and the Boston Consulting Group had engaged in lobbying the School District of Philadelphia around major policy issues such as school closings and charter expansion.

The complaint centered around the fact that the Foundation contracted with the Boston Consulting Group around a set of “deliverables” without the School District being a party to the contract. The Foundation also solicited donors to specifically pay the Boston Consulting Group at least $2.7 million for their work, but funneled the money through a separate agency to hide the identities of the donors.

Last week the School District of Philadelphia announced the planned closure and consolidation of dozens of schools across the city.

This post by RS Board Member Helen Gym, a co-founder of Parents United for Public Education in Philadelphia, explains why the parent group filed the complaint.

Why we filed with the Ethics Board: The public deserves to know what’s happening here

HelenGym

by Helen Gym

Yesterday, Parents United for Public Education, the Philadelphia Home and School Council and the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP filed a complaint with the City Ethics Board requesting an investigation into whether the Boston Consulting Group, private donors, and the William Penn Foundation acted as lobbyists and principals to influence policy in the School District of Philadelphia.

We did not make this decision easily or hastily. The William Penn Foundation has long been a positive force for philanthropy in the city. Before taking action, we requested a thorough legal analysis from the venerable Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia. We arrived at our decision after months of observation and study around the murky activities of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and the wealthy donors who funded them. Just a week before the District is expected to announce dozens of school closings which will throw our city into turmoil, we believe the public deserves to know the full influence of private money and access on decisions that impact us all.

As detailed in our complaint, the BCG -William Penn Foundation contract explicitly stipulated that BCG’s work would promote charter expansion, management networks, identify 60 top candidates for school closure and impact labor negotiations. Specific mention was made in the contracts about influencing the SRC before an important May vote. While it’s true that the District initially hired BCG, it did so only for about five weeks between February and March. BCG’s District contract expired March 29. From then on, BCG’s contract was only with the William Penn Foundation.

As a third party entity, BCG had unprecedented access to District data, financial information, high-level decisionmakers, and private forums to push their plans. No such access has ever been afforded to parents and community members who had to settle for limited information and public meetings.

BCG’s influence was made apparent in the massive charter expansions which happened this past spring. BCG’s contract with the William Penn Foundation stated as a “deliverable” that BCG would “work closely with the school district’s senior leadership, School Reform Commission members, and the Office of Charter Schools to design a charter school expansion strategy” and “design and execute a charter school renewal and modification process.”

They delivered.

Against a backdrop of dramatic fiscal crisis – Chief Recovery Officer Tom Knudsen even threatened that schools may not open in September – the School Reform Commission inexplicably approved 5,416 new seats across 14 charters at a projected cost of $139 million over five years. Some of the charters like KIPP Philadelphia had a School Performance Index which ranked them among the District’s lowest performers.

It’s critical for the public to understand the role of private, monied interests seeking to influence such decisions. PILCOP found that the William Penn Foundation solicited donors specifically for the BCG contract and then oversaw a fund at a separate agency that disbursed donations exclusively to BCG. This set-up allowed the identities of many of those who paid for BCG’s work to remain secret, along with any economic interests they may have had in the policies and decisions being advanced. For example, it was later reported by the Public School Notebook that the donors included a prominent real estate developer and individuals and groups with interests and ties to religious and charter organizations.

Transparency matters in the case of charter expansions, or when BCG states as a deliverable that it will “identify 60 top candidates for [school] closure.” It matters because under this shrouded arrangement, the public can’t know whether the work BCG did was for the District’s benefit or for the benefit of its donors.

From our viewpoint as parents, this is not philanthropy. It’s something dramatically different that needs the review of an independent agency. That’s why we joined with the Philadelphia Home & School Council and the Philadelphia NAACP to file a complaint with the City Ethics Board and bring what we believe to be the first test of the City’s new Lobbying Ordinance since it went into effect last January.

As Philadelphia NAACP president J. Whyatt Mondesire explains: “We need to assure the public that monied interests are not using the turmoil in the District for their own interest.”

This issue isn’t just a local one. On a national level, a number of education observers and public interest advocates have raised serious concerns about the role of “philanthropic” investments into education reform. From the Broad Foundation to the Waltons and Gates Foundations – what we’re seeing across the country is an unprecedented level of private money shaping public policy under the guise of philanthropy. Too often that agenda has centered around a radical dismantling of public education, increased privatization, and disruptive reform that has sent many districts spiraling into chaos and sustained turmoil.

It’s important to note the complaint we filed addresses regulatory compliance. We are not suing the Foundation or BCG and we are not charging them with illegal activity. Lobbying is legal. But there is a fundamental difference between claiming that BCG’s work was based on a full needs assessment of the school district with the District’s best interests at its center, and recognizing that they could also be a hired gun executing on a pre-determined contract with private interests hoping to influence decisionmakers rather than endure a public and democratic process of governance.

The public needs to know what’s happening here either way. We are not going to shrug our shoulders with a “business as usual” resignation. The lines separating public good from private interests have been blurred if not crossed on issues of dramatic importance to parents, students and community members. The School Reform Commission meanwhile has not assured us they understand the importance of boundaries and maintaining them judiciously.

Transparency and public process matter. It’s unfortunate it takes a formal complaint to reinforce that message for our schools.

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Last week, we sent the following message to the folks who have signed up for our e-news, and we didn’t want you to miss out on this special deal. 

If you would like to be among the first to know about current education news we think is important, articles, curriculum, and of course, deals and discounts, you can sign up for our e-news here

- Kris Collett

Dear Friend of Rethinking Schools:

The folly of high-stakes testing looms large right now, particularly because late fall is the time when many public schools givethe state-required standardized tests. My teacher friends in Wisconsin are busy giving their students the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination. How’s that for a euphemism?

At Rethinking Schools, the increasing reliance on test scores to assign a number value on a student’s academic accomplishments, to evaluate teachers, and to label schools has long troubled us. We have published countless articles about the dangers of an overreliance on high-stakes tests, and we collected the best of those in our new book Pencils Down: Rethinking High-Stakes Testing and Accountability in our Public Schools.

In hopes of boosting morale and inspiring resistance movements among the ranks of teachers and progressive education activists, we are offering a free chapter download from Pencils Down: “High-Stakes Harm” by beloved writer, teacher, and Rethinking Schools editor Linda Christensen. Linda asks important questions in her article, like “How do we retain our critical stance on assessments while preparing students for them?” and “Can we ‘teach the tests’ without compromising what we know to be true about teaching and learning?”

These are the kind of popularly written, story-rich articles that can help clarify issues and mobilize opposition to the test-dense curriculum that is at the heart of corporate education reform.

Please download this chapter, draw inspiration from it, and share widely.

If you like what you read, you can purchase the book at a 20% discount through December 5, 2012. Use code TEACHINGK12 at checkout on our website or when calling our order line 1-800-669-4192.

Thank you for your important work.

In solidarity,

Kris Collett
Outreach/Marketing Director

More on Pencils Down and High-Stakes Testing:

Read the complete introduction by editors Wayne Au and Melissa Bollow Tempel.

Read a review by Samuel Reed, III of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook:
“This hard-hitting anthology may rail against the high-stakes test, but that doesn’t mean the writers are opposed to assessment or accountability. Many of the articles, essays, and analyses in this collection demonstrate that teaching and learning are more complex than numbers. Pencils Down works to demystify, for readers ranging from teachers to parents at the PTA meeting, the Holy Grail of high-stakes testing.”

Check out the National Center for Fair and Open Testing for more excellent articles, resources, and the latest news. (Fun Fact: Monty Neill, who is Executive Director of the Center, and authored or co-authored three of the articles included in Pencils Down.)

Join more than 11,000 individuals and 400 organizations in signing the National Resolution on High Stakes Testing.

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