Thursday, December 30, 2010

It's All About the Corporate Benjamins, Baby: Education, a.k.a., My 2010 Year in Review Post

(This has been cross-posted at Rachel's Rants Raves & Recollections.)

During 2010, thanks to the work of Lawrence Lessig and Chris Hedges, I became much more aware of the unhealthy corporate influence in American democratic institutions. I put aside my creative writing to launch a series of posts on my more general blog on the topic. I wrote about corporate money in politics and government, after which I took a break to write about the VA-07 congressional election, writing, and journalism, and to start a blog dedicated to education. I've intended to regularly update my food blog, as well, but the best laid plans. . .

Right before the Christmas holiday, I completed a piece about Teach For America, which I am hoping will be published somewhere bigger (not likely, I know). In the meantime, I was going to use winter break and the grandparental child care that comes with it to write, blog, publish, write, blog, publish. However, as I tried to organize my thinking about the present and future of journalism, of writing as a profession, of teaching as a profession, of public education, and of efforts to reform education, the topics all swirled together to form a toxic sludge of anxiety that, helped along by my kids' germs, rendered me existentially and then physically ill. As miserable as it was, being sick forced me to take a step back and ignore all of it for a number of days. From this pause grew a less fevered end-of-year collection of thoughts about the confluence of corporate influence and public education.

I am vulnerable to conspiracy theorizing about what's currently happening in the name of education reform, and I understand why others are, too--I think, in fact, that democracy benefits from this type of push back. Are the reforms of wealthy and politically connected individuals harmful to the institution of public education? I have said on my education blog and continue to say: yes, that in many cases they are. But are those folks sitting around together and villainously hatching some grand scheme to bring down public education? No, that's way too simplistic of an explanation for what's going on. Furthermore, I'm doubtful that describing problems with their efforts in terms of a conspiracy is productive. The problem with talking like a conspiracy theorist, even if there's at least some truth to what's being said, is that you're likely to be dismissed by the very people you need to be taken seriously by. In that vein, it is equally hysterical and irresponsible to cast teachers and teachers unions as the villainous "deep-pocketed" (ha!) root of all of our nation's problems or even as the root of our education system's problems, or as sitting around conspiring to ruin children's lives because they only care about the "adults." Unfortunately, these seem to be prevailing narratives these days.

Teachers' unions may defend some people who don't deserve defending and they may make mistakes, and yes, there are educators out there who aren't doing their jobs and yes, teachers need fair and rigorous evaluations, but as a group, teachers and their unions are not responsible for how our society has failed us over the past year. Did teachers unions cause twenty-seven plus percent of America's children to live in poverty? No. Have teachers and their unions driven up heath care costs? Do they deny coverage and care to our the most vulnerable among us? Nope. Did teachers and their unions cause our economic system to melt down? No, that was another group of professionals. Did teachers and their unions go start costly and futile wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Did teachers and their unions create a criminal justice system that disproportionately and often unjustly imprisons poor people and minorities? No, they aren't behind such travesties. Did teachers and their unions fail to recognize the impending dangers of climate change and then sabotage legislation meant to lessen the havoc it's going to reap? No. It's not been teachers or their unions that have done all of these things, but our political leaders, policies, and system. And who is now clearly behind those? Not a bunch of middle class educators, but business, financial, industrial, and corporate interests.

While I don't believe that there is some evil master plan being hatched by the likes of DFER (Democrats for Education Reform), Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Waltons, their influence is unhealthy, undemocratic, and dangerous. Teachers unions and organizations like the National Education Association at least are accountable to the systems and large numbers of people they represent, systems and people whose work and studies will be most affected by the reforms being brought. Whom do DFER, Gates, Broad, and the Waltons represent? To whom are they accountable? Were they elected? Since when should a handful of unelected, extraordinarily wealthy people be entrusted to represent the interests of millions of poor, working, and middle class people?

Two of the most egregious examples of corporate influence in education are in higher education. As there is less public funding of public universities, wealthy patrons such as the Koch brothers are stepping in to establish "institutes" that put out research and teachings that serve not the interests of citizens, but the interests of the industries they own. In medical schools and schools of public health, much research on drugs and treatments traditionally funded by public monies is now funded and supervised by the very pharmaceutical companies who stand to reap profits from their successful trials.

In K-12 education, there are not as many cases of such overt conflicts of interest, but I'm afraid we're moving in that direction.  Gates, Broad, and the Waltons support market-based reforms that would include mayoral takeovers, vast expansion of charter schools (which are public schools that can be run in some instances as private institutions), the de-professionalization of teaching, and CEO-like leadership of schools and school systems, and they are pouring money into the system to see such reforms actualized. Influential organizations with deceptively neutral-sounding names such as right-wing ideologue Jeanne Allen's Center for Education Reform directly promote privatizing our public education system. As they already have in New York City Public Schools, test prep companies such as Kaplan (which is owned by the pro-corporate education reform Washington Post) stand to make millions from the new education reformers' policies which rely heavily on standardized tests.

As public schools are being told by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to do "more with less" and as school budgets are being reduced and reduced and stimulus money runs out, with no enthusiasm for alternative means of raising revenues, the private sector is stepping to fill in the gaps often with strings attached, shaping our education system to their liking, whether its largesse benefits its supposed recipients or not. What's about to happen in Los Angeles Unified School District is only the tip of the iceberg.

An example of private takeover of public schools already in progress is in DC. The DC Public Education Fund is privately run on private donations with no public oversight, and very little of the money that's raised goes directly into the DC Public Schools' budget or is dispersed by those appointed to run the schools; yet, the fund directly influences outcomes in public schools. For example, the organization funded IMPACT, DC's controversial new evaluation system, teacher bonuses, as well as the infamous new contracts with teachers. During the negotiations, then-Chancellor Rhee stated that if she wasn't going to be around later, aka, if Adrian Fenty didn't get re-elected, that the money raised for the teacher contracts would go, too. That is a clear example of private interests using private money to influence public elections and public policy. When public money is used to fund public schools, such blackmail can't take place, at least not legally. Much more democratic would be for the wealthy individuals who are behind such efforts to be taxed appropriately with the tax revenues funding social and educational programs vetted by democratically elected and appointed officials.

The Gates Foundation and the DC Public Education Fund have their hands in many places, and surely, not all of them are harmful to public education, but when I read Gates's thoughts and ideas about education, for example in these interviews about teaching in Parade and Newsweek, I'm horrified. (I'm also horrified about what such coverage means about the state of education journalism, but that's another story.) Not only has Gates not been elected or appointed by an elected official, he speaks simplistically and ignorantly about education even just at the level of basic facts, and his ideas have not been shown to work or improve the systems they impact.

While Eli Broad is no right-wing ideologue, his private education foundation and school leadership training centers have profound impacts on the public systems they're meant to reform. This New Yorker article about Eli Broad's influence in the Los Angeles art world is very instructive on Broad's approach to philanthropy. Broad has good intentions and interesting ideas, enlarging the arts scene in LA and making art exhibitions more accessible, for example. But he doesn't simply give money directly to art institutions or entrust the experts with funding; rather, he has to own and control the institutions, even if that means promoting poor practices or destroying the institutions. I can only imagine that a similar dynamic occurs in the Broads' education philanthropies.

If Gates, Broad, the Waltons, and the hedge funders behind DFER weren't rich, would they be listened to? Why are they being listened to now? Why are such a small group of extraordinarily wealthy individuals allowed to wield so much power and control over education policy? This is at the expense of democracy. Obama has rightly stated grave concerns with the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling. Why is he not concerned with big money in our public education system? Why does he, in fact, welcome it? Is corporate influence any less problematic in the halls of our schools than it is in our halls of government?

One need not launch ad hominem attacks, speak of ethical dilemmas, or list the hypocrises of these education reformers. All Americans, regardless of political affiliation and educational ideology, can agree that our great nation was founded on the ideals of democracy. Corporate money and influence in our public democratic institutions, especially in our public schools, corrodes and corrupts our democracy. Anti-democratic forces are un-American. A healthy democracy requires a well and publicly financed, equitable public education system. Unfortunately, that's not what the Obama administration and the particular education reformers they throw their support behind are going to produce. Unchecked private and corporate influence in our public education system is as big a threat to our democracy as the unchecked corporate influence is to our political system. In fact, they are one in the same. Our public schools should no more belong to Gates, Broad, Bush, or any DFER member as they do to any taxpayer and any citizen; it is from them we must take our country, our democracy, and our schools back.

UPDATE 1/6/11: Too bad I didn't see this brilliant piece by writer Joanne Barkan before I posted this. I could have saved myself the trouble--it's a much better, more comprehensive piece on the problems with education philanthropy than anything I have ever written. Read it in Dissent Magazine or in truthout.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Is Michelle Rhee Truly Putting Students First?

Last week, Michelle Rhee took the next logical step of a bona fide revolutionary: she announced her new position as a lobbyist on "Oprah" and in Newsweek magazine.  Valerie Strauss at The Washington Post, Trip Gabriel of The New York Times, and Alan Gottlieb of Education News Colorado summarize well Rhee's intentions, but in brief, Students First, a non-profit political organization of parents, students, and teachers, will advocate for:

  • taking on special interests, such as teachers' unions,
  • "smart" spending on instructional programs,
  • encouraging parental involvement,
  • "excellent" schools for every child,
  • getting talented teachers in every classroom,
  • dismantling teacher tenure and seniority-based incentives,
  • merit pay for teachers,
  • vouchers,
  • using standardized tests to evaluate teachers, and
  • firing the bottom five to ten percent of teachers.
These ideas are not novel ones and as I outline below, aren't likely to be successful in helping school children.

I should have known from her appearance on the "Colbert Report" the week before that Rhee was warming up for this blitz. I had rather hoped that she would fade into the woodwork of conservative think tanks and empty motivational speech giving, but no such luck. Rhee has always talked about how she wants what's best for children and how our current public education system is designed for what's best for the adults, but I don't see how her policies, which I detailed here and on The Washington Post website here, are best for school children. Also, don't fairly common instances of union ineptitude plus low pay and poor working conditions for many public school educators refute the claim that the system is currently working well for the adults?

One thing I neglected to add in my critique of her tenure at DCPS were the exceedingly high rates of teacher turnover and attrition, often caused by low morale, mass firings, and budget problems. For example, the RIF of October 2009 caused terrible disruptions and chaos. There were classrooms without teachers, students without necessary classes, and schools without counselors. Consolidating freshmen and seniors in the same English class, cancelling foreign language courses, and having elementary school students start over in October with a new or no teacher can hardly be good for those students or serve as an example of "smart" spending. Rhee was not known for her fiscal competence, to say the least.

Rhee claims that this is the first organization to advocate for children, but that's just not true, and saying as much is an insult to child advocates and parents everywhere. What about the work of organizations like Voices for America's Children and the Children's Defense Fund? And what of parents and parent groups? Does she think public school parents like me join the PTA to advocate for ourselves? Because we like to attend tedious meetings and peddle wrapping paper? Was Michelle Rhee active in the PTA at Harlem Park Elementary where she taught in Baltimore or at Oyster Elementary where her own children attend in DC?

Rhee says that she should have communicated and expressed herself better in DC, but as NYU education historian Diane Ravitch explains," it is hard to think of any figure in the world of American education who had as much media attention as she has had over the past three years. Certainly, she did not lack for opportunities to communicate." In fact, a famous Rhee-ism is that "collaboration and consensus are way over-rated." Her problem was not that she didn't communicate, but rather, that she does not collaborate. How can she engage parents in the process of education reform if she doesn't believe in collaborating with them?

When she talks about "excellent" schools for each child, what she is getting at is choice, which means charters and vouchers. I am still forming my opinions on charters, but for now I'll concede that while I prefer magnets, charters can be valuable, but only when they are community-based, feature rich and challenging curricula, are kept on a short leash, and don't supplant neighborhood-based options. More on this topic later, but for now these pieces in the New York Review of Books, Miller-McCune, and The Wall Street Journal show why charters are not the panacea Rhee thinks they are. As for vouchers, public money should not be funding religious and private schools. Period. Furthermore, the expansion of charters and vouchers will not be successful as a long-term strategy for reforming public education, especially if they move a public system in the direction of privatization. Why doesn't Rhee, instead, raise money to directly fund financial aid and scholarships for needy kids who want to attend private and religious schools? 

Michelle Rhee is a firm believer that talent and not practice makes the teacher. She stated that newly hired teachers are probably superior to veterans, because they'd be more innovative and creative. First of all, she's already stated that she doesn't value creativity; she once said, "Creativity is good and whatever. But if the children don’t know how to read, I don’t care how creative you are. You’re not doing your job." Second of all, studies have shown that teachers from TFA, and this could probably extend to NTP teachers as well, are not more effective and that they're costly, particularly because they leave the profession so quickly. Finally, firing the bottom five to ten percent of teachers would be risky. How would the bottom five to ten percent be determined? By test scores? I don't agree with that. Would doing this actually lead to higher quality teaching and education? After reading this, I'm dubious we can fire our way to educational greatness.

As for Rhee's emphasis on standardized tests and improved evaluations of teachers, while teachers do need a fair and rigorous evaluation system, standardized test scores shouldn't be part of the equation, and should only be used to glean information about students. Merit pay based on test scores isn't fair and it doesn't work. The use of value-added measures doesn't matter--those are equally problematic.  Her own evaluation system, IMPACT, is flawed and statistically faulty. Finally, while seniority-based lay-offs are problematic, the alternatives she advocates for don't seem to be any less so.

Isn't it ironic that in order to take on these "heavily funded special interests," Rhee is creating one herself? (And I'm sorry but, "textbook companies"? I don't disagree with this on some level, but what of other bigger and better funded actors in the education marketplace? Or do they not count as special interests when they're headed by Rhee's mentor or align with her interests?) Michelle Rhee and her initiatives have the backing of some of the wealthiest people in the country.  I find it troubling that she feels the need to spin her initiatives via a PR firm, the same one that she used as DC schools chancellor. She is her own heavily-funded special interest! The last thing our children, our public schools, and our besieged democracy needs is yet another corporate-backed lobbying organization headed by a politically inept it girl with a stated disdain for democratic principles and processes. And where would the money raised by Students First go? To politicians and political campaigns, not to schools and not to children. As I have written about here, more big money in our political system is a problem, not a solution.

To her credit, I do think that Michelle Rhee believes that she is doing what's best for children, that she has good intentions. The problem is that she is not actually doing what's best for children. More and more, Michelle Rhee, seems to be suffering from a blinding and pathological narcissism, the kind that develops from excessive media attention and intensive rationalizing. As I study and observe Rhee, I am reminded of other ideologically-driven political leaders who in the face of a crisis do great wrong in the name of right. Especially instructive in understanding Michelle Rhee's cult of personality is Jeffrey Toobin's recent profile in The New Yorker of Rachel Yould, an extraordinarily bright and talented young woman who in her quest for fame and socially useful significance manages to con even the smartest and most altruistic of actors, not to mention herself, securing funding and resources for herself that would be better and more justly spent on the causes of those more sincerely and urgently in need of them. 

If Michelle Rhee truly wants to put students first then she should put aside her bankrupt ideology, her failing policies, and her monstrous ego and let the real needs of America's public school children come first. She would be my hero if she would change course and, quite simply, raise money that would go directly to helping poor children. As a former public school student and teacher and one of the public school parents she is trying to engage, I'm asking her to truly put our children, and the future of the communities they so desperately need, first.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Conversation About the Future of Public Education in Virginia

(This has been cross-posted at Blue Virginia.)

Upon prompting from the blog Blue Virginia, on Tuesday evening, December 7th, I journeyed to Richmond's Southside to attend a panel entitled, "A Conversation About the Future of Public Education" co-hosted by The Greater Jefferson Davis Community Association and Policy Diary and featuring Virginia politician George Allen and former Democratic Party of Virginia Chair Paul Goldman.

In his opening and later remarks, George Allen said the two most important services a state government can provide are law enforcement and education and he described his role in establishing the SOLs (Standards of Learning) in Virginia, which he emphasized go beyond the NCLB requirements of reading and math to include science, social studies, and writing. Allen mentioned the importance of innovation (charter schools!), of accountability (high-stakes standardized testing!), and of limiting federal intrusion into education (states' rights!).

Paul Goldman talked about the challenges facing the public education system in Virginia, and particularly in the city of Richmond, where he said the poverty rate is twice that of the state of Mississippi. He also talked about the need for an honest discussion about education, that even though most Virginia schools are accredited and the graduation rate is rising, that the standards have been dumbed down and that high school graduates are not prepared for jobs, for college, or for service in the military. He made reference to Richmond education reporter Chris Dovi's recent article in Richmond Magazine, which I discussed in a prior post. Finally, he railed against the for-profit higher education industry and praised the Obama administration's efforts to reign it in. He also hailed Obama as the strongest ever president on education reform.

Audience consensus didn't dispute the need for accountability and standardized tests, but was clearly troubled by the high-stakes piece. High stakes testing and the SOLs have lead to dumbed down, test-centered curricula, to a focus on testing and measuring at the expense of quality teaching and meaningful learning, causing the standards to become the default curricula and not the basis of them. There was some mention of charter schools, but it seemed to be more along the lines of, let's replicate what Geoffrey Canada is doing in our public schools, rather than let's wholesale replace neighborhood schools with charters.

I have lived and voted in central Virginia as a Democrat for almost eight of the past ten years. I was surprised and impressed with George Allen's ease, curiosity, and ability to listen (damn, that guy is likable!). Paul Goldman's commentary was refreshingly honest, encyclopedic, and astute. Neither of them, though, seemed to get how NCLB has negatively affected Virginia's curricula. Allen seemed genuinely baffled to hear of the community's critiques of the SOLs. While Goldman understood, and proffered even, that students weren't being adequately prepared, he seemed clueless about how the policies of NCLB, and now of the Obama administration, may have led to this.

I appreciated that Allen and Goldman did not fall prey to the politically expedient teacher and school bashing that is all the rage now, but like so many other politicians, Democrats, national journalists, and even citizens, they seemed to take for granted that George W. Bush and now Obama and Duncan were fixing K-12. There was no suggestion of questioning or examining their policies, no connecting of the dots between educational outcomes and the policies (NCLB) that have certainly played a role in producing them.

There was also talk, both from the panelists and audience members, about our not being able to "compete" with China and India. I'm sure this was in part in light of the recent PISA results. I won't comment too much on this as So Educated blogger Alice Ginsburg has already done so eloquently here. While I'm not one for chest thumping, I'll concede that we need to "compete" and "perform," and that there are certainly aspects of China's culture that are worth emulating, but their lack of a free and open society is not one of them. Although the attendees were articulate, passionate, and informed, the event was not that well attended and I, age thirty-seven, was among the younger attendees. Yes, we want our young citizens to go on to excel and innovate in math and science, but we also want them to have the desire to attend events such as these, to know the importance of debate and of being part of an active, informed, and articulate citizenry who holds our political leaders accountable and pushes them to advocate for the needs and rights of the people they represent. We want them to focus not simply on the solutions our politicians give us, but to be a critical part of the process of forming them. And while it may be challenging to test and measure that, it's downright un-American not to teach it. Our education policies must not emphasize testing and measuring at the expense of a vibrant democracy.

I thank the hosts for holding the event and I ask them for the sake of our democracy and of our public schools to keep 'em coming.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Diversity University, No Longer

December 1, 2010

Dear Jeff, Brian, Liza, Claire, and Becca of the Red and Black Management Team,

Thank you for your recent e-mail emphasizing the importance of alumni “support.” You may be wondering why, despite its significance and the constant stream of requests to do otherwise, I haven’t given to Wesleyan in recent years. You may be wondering why I didn’t show up for my fifteenth reunion this past May. After all, after graduating, each year I dutifully forked over a small donation, and I attended my fifth and tenth reunions and had a blast, conscience intact. Maybe your office didn’t notice that I wasn’t present this past May and that I haven’t been giving (although I seriously doubt that—I worked briefly for the Annual Fund). Perhaps they don’t care why, but in case they do, I’ll tell you: I am ashamed of Wesleyan's admissions policies.

While my decisions to withhold donations in recent years and to skip reunion this year are mostly principled ones, I'll admit there are reasons that have to do with my own disposition and financial circumstances. For one, I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the fund raising emphasis of alumni events. Just as Senior Week at Wesleyan was designed to impress upon graduating students of the fantastic time they had at their institution and that they should cough up donations in the future, reunion seems to be designed to make people feel good about their alma mater's brand, so that they'll continue giving. I’ll admit I get queasy when I imagine having an awkward conversation with the person I made out with on the couch in Westco Lounge after the Lesbian Animal Rights Eco Ball at Chi Psi. I envision explaining to fellow alums that while they're in the midst of discovering a cure for cancer and running non-profits that teach illiterate teenagers to read, I manage to write some amateurish poetry and mediocre prose for no money in between trying to convince my kids of the perils of drinking their own bath water and of the sanitary dangers of rooting around in trash cans in public restrooms. As you may have heard, the years I was at Wesleyan were not stellar ones for the administration and I think the class of 1995 has one of the lowest levels of giving because of that. Another reason is that, frankly, with three kids, a professor husband, and no income, I am broke. Finally, since my parents, and not Wesleyan, covered my tuition in its entirety and gave me a liberal arts upbringing, it's primarily to them I feel I owe a debt of gratitude.

With its commitment to diversity, adherence to need-blind admissions, and emphasis on social justice, for example their divestment from South Africa during the apartheid years, I used to be proud to be part of Wesleyan. I used to think Wesleyan was morally superior to places like Harvard and Williams. My husband, himself a Harvard grad, was incredulous when he recounted to me receiving his first fundraising call about a month post graduation, asking for a $100 contribution. "I give you $100 every month. It's called paying back my loan with interest." He always talked about the greed of Harvard: how much money they have, how little they pay their workers, and how much good they could do as educators, but fail to do, just sitting on their billions. Even with the grants to lower income-income students that they have recently started giving, they could do more. "Not Wesleyan," I informed him smugly, "Wesleyan is one of the good guys in this."

Then I read Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education by Peter Sacks, and I realized that Wesleyan, while attracting a different student body, was really not much different in practice from a place like Harvard, especially in terms of economic diversity and access of poorer students. Wesleyan's current admissions policies ensure that beneath the surface, it is no longer "Diversity University." Sacks made the case that the admissions officers at Wesleyan, just like at other elite schools, look for high SAT scores and high school transcripts decorated with AP classes, and students from lower income families are limited to the rigor of the course offerings and curriculum of the schools they have access to. Many of those students don't have access to expensive SAT-prep classes (whose very existence, to me, demonstrates that the SAT isn't doing what it was meant to do). Also Wesleyan admissions officers, like those at other schools of its caliber, have cozy relationships with college counselors at public schools in affluent neighborhoods and at more prestigious private schools, providing an admissions conduit that poorer students at less prestigious schools in less affluent neighborhoods don't have.

Perhaps you’ve read The Gatekeepers by New York Times journalist Jacques Steinberg. Steinberg chronicles the admissions process at Wesleyan in his book, where he follows one admissions officer, Ralph Fugueroa, and six high school senior applicants. Steinberg shows to Wesleyan's credit that it's far from automatic for students with perfect GPAs and near-perfect SAT scores to gain admission. Figueroa tries valiantly to ensure spots go to "educationally disadvantaged" students and to account for the future, and not just past, potential for success of any given applicant. Even so, officers like Figueroa do not necessarily have a fair process. The decision to admit or reject a student is at times dependent on the individual officers own values and perspectives. Also, the quality of the application sometimes seems dependent on the influence of individual high school counselors. In fact, according to Sacks's description of the book, Figueroa himself has a long-time friendship and professional relationship with the college counselor at Harvard-Westlake, a selective prep school in Los Angeles, whom he had gone to Stanford with.

Wesleyan, despite its having a relatively modest endowment compared to other elite institutions, has followed Princeton, Harvard, and Stanford's examples and has given grants to students who qualify financially. This along with their commitment to the aforementioned ideals is to be applauded. But it's not enough. The percentage of students in the top-notch colleges who receive Pell Grants has declined drastically in the past twenty years. (Wesleyan fails to even make the group of twenty-five of colleges and universities with higher percentages of students awarded them. SEE UPDATEAnd according to this account in the San Francisco Chronicle, the students who do receive grants at places like Stanford number very few and often find themselves isolated and alone.

UPDATE 12/2/10:  A fellow Wesleyan alum and reader brought this gaffe to my attention (see comment below): The Pell Grant link that I cite above could not apply to Wesleyan--the link I provide is to the "National University" category rankings. Wesleyan is considered a "National Liberal Arts College." Looking at the same list in that category Wesleyan actually ranks tenth out of twenty-five. According to the same reader, that percentage has increased from thirteen percent to eighteen percent for the 2010-11 school year.

I don't judge you for choosing to go to Wesleyan, nor do I judge the people who work there, or the alumni who give Wesleyan money. My husband is a professor at a liberal arts college and I realize that this problem is not an easy one to solve. It puts colleges who are committed both to diversity and to academic excellence in a pickle, particularly a financial pickle. When I discuss this with my college friends during our non-reunion reunions, they point out that while Wesleyan should strive to avoid being hypocritical, changing their admission policies would make it impossible for them to exist and still be committed to the same level of academic excellence. I acknowledge that they may be right.

I have found and you may, too, that Richard Rodriguez’s, Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, An Autobiography, may have something to add to this discussion. Among other points he makes is that the affirmative action movement of the 1960s and 1970s missed a major opportunity when it failed to recognize or include class and only focused on race. I fear that institutions of higher education continue to make that mistake. From Rodriguez:

"The civil rights movement in the North depended upon an understanding of racism derived from the South. Here was the source of the mistaken strategy--the reason why activists could so easily ignore class and could consider race alone as a sufficient measure of social oppression. In the South, where racism had been legally enforced, all blacks suffered discrimination uniformly. . . From the experience of southern blacks, a generation of Americans came to realize with new force that there are forms of oppression that touch all levels of a society. . . the movement extended to animate the liberation movements of women, the elderly, the physically disabled, and the homosexual. . . . But with this advance. . .it became easy to underestimate or even ignore altogether, the importance of class. Easy to forget that those whose lives are shaped by poverty and poor education (cultural minorities) are least able to defend themselves against social oppression, whatever its form."

Rodriguez, as a well-educated and middle-class Hispanic, was able to benefit from programs designed for Hispanic menial laborers who had no chance of accessing the college education that Rodriguez did. He argues that improvements in the lives of disadvantaged students requires that their parents have jobs and decent housing and that to succeed the students need a healthy diet, safe neighborhoods, and good teachers, and a reform of primary and secondary education with something like a national literacy campaign for children of the poor. So, yes, ideas like Rodriguez’s do let Wesleyan and other institutions of higher education like it off the hook. But not entirely.

Just as Wesleyan was a pioneer in committing to diversity, in emphasizing social justice, I'd like to hope they could at least try to be a pioneer once again, to be the pioneer that endeavors to help narrow the huge gaps that have developed in our increasingly stratified American class system. The grants help and are a great first step, but because so few low-income students can actually gain admission, I question the extent to which they are actually used by those students. No matter how diverse racially and geographically the student body seems to be, in order to be truly committed to diversity, equality, and social justice, Wesleyan must change their admissions policies and must get out of the US News and World Report ratings game. Otherwise, no matter how much they're marketing themselves as part of the meritocracy, Wesleyan is still the same elitist animal. The institution may be dressed in drag and Birkenstocks with socks, but beneath the surface, it’s still concerned about dropping a few rankings.

Why can't Wesleyan do something in the spirit of what the Texas legislature did in 1997 when it passed HB 588, a.k.a., the Top 10% Rule, which gave any Texas student graduating in the top ten percent of their high school class automatic admission to Texas's public universities, no matter their S.A.T. scores? According to Peter Sacks, ". . . the top ten percenters perform as well or better in university classrooms than peers entering UT Austin with SAT scores hundreds of points higher." Why not do what the University of California Board of Regents and its president, Richard C. Atkinson, did from 1995 to 2003? As voters demanded they do with Prop 209, they let go of considering race and gender in admissions, and called for the university to get rid of the SATs as a criteria for admission. According, again, to Peter Sacks, GPAs and test scores were still two of the items of the fourteen criteria used in the revised admissions process, but so were the level of difficulty level of high school courses, students' talents and "achievements on real-world projects," as well as the "students' ability to overcome obstacles of poverty and social class." Wesleyan could replace the problematic SAT test with the SAT subject tests instead, look at applicants’ records against the course offerings the neighborhood schools have to offer, and add an essay to the application where students are asked to demonstrate how they've challenged themselves and engaged during high school to the fullest extent possible.

When I have discussed this with friends and family, besides expressing their outdated belief that admissions to American colleges and universities are a meritocratic process, some have questioned, "Well, can those students do the work?" Well, perhaps not immediately, but I believe those students are capable of doing the work. Why not establish summer institutes for those students? Why not change the matriculate-in-four-years policy Wesleyan currently has and take the stigma out of taking five years to finish? Why not hire people in the admissions office or change the job descriptions of some of the current ones to have them reach out to the inner city, inner loop suburban, and rural public schools? Employ instructors and professors who are committed to rigorous scholarship, excellence in teaching, and a commitment to social and class equality? There's certainly no shortage of competition on the academic job market. If revamping their admissions processes is too much, well-endowed institutions at least have the resources to start quality community colleges.

I know that this exercise is a bit of a gimmick and that I probably sound like some of your naively idealistic classmates. I know that taking such steps would be financially tough for Wesleyan, but maybe if Wesleyan headed in this direction, similar schools would follow suit. I'd like to see Wesleyan get back into the business of educating and out of the business of branding. To stop simply marketing the ideals of social justice and diversity and to start practicing them. Otherwise, at least Wesleyan should be up front about what kind of institution it is and what its priorities are. Ask your supervisors to throw me a bone, and I'll start giving you the twenty-five dollars a year I've been withholding. In the meantime, I'm going to give my time, attention, and money to educational institutions who are doing the good work I know Wesleyan is capable of doing.

Good luck on your end-of-semester exams and happy holidays.

Rachel Levy '95

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Some Edu-news to be Thankful For

With so much of my blogging lately being focused on cause for alarm, I want to focus today on some reasons to be encouraged:

1) In New York City, an advisory panel of eight members appointed by New York State Education Commissioner David Steiner voted yesterday against granting a waiver to publishing executive Cathie Black to become NYC Schools Chancellor. According to a Quinnipiac University poll, sixty-two percent of NYC public school parents didn't approve of Black's appointment. The battle is not over yet, but hooray for the panel's drawing the line and for successful activism.

2) This study done by the non-partisan Education Trust blasts the for-profit university sector. It seems like the politicians might actually listen and act on this one. Maybe they'll start to listen to and act on the alarms being sounded about the K-12 for-profit education industry.

3) Some school districts in states that won Race to the Top funding are giving the money back, either because it will cost more than it's worth to implement the changes or because they don't think the reforms are the right thing to do.

I applaud the courage and good work of the activists, researchers, and leaders who have made these positive developments happen. I am grateful to them for giving me some edu-things to be thankful for this holiday.

Happy Thanksgiving, all.

Monday, November 22, 2010

It's the DOE Policies that Stink, Not the DOE People

I'm still at work on some bigger pieces, particularly on TFA, charters, and teacher quality.

In the meantime, this Education Week article entitled "Friends to Teachers at the U.S. Department of Education" written by Jonathan Eckert and Jason Raymond caught my eye when it was published a couple of weeks ago. Eckert and Raymond were two of eight teachers working at the Department of Education in the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship Program. I remember thinking that since lately I'd had such negative associations with the Department of Education, to the point that I was considering jumping on board with George Wood's idea of eliminating it, it was good for me to read this, to get some sense of the folks working at the Department of Education and what their perspectives might be, so that I don't jump off the cliff into over-simplifying the education reform debate into "good" and "evil" sides.

I filed it away and forgot about it until today when I read Anthony Cody's post on his blog for Teacher Magazine. Anthony described a disappointing and thus far fruitless process he had gone through to collect feedback (in the form of letters) from teachers to present to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Cody also offers a persuasive critique of teacher outreach materials and programs offered by the Department of Education under Duncan.

Cody's post apparently had been written in response to the post of another teaching Ambassador Fellow and fellow Teacher Magazine blogger, Patrick Ledesa, who had written in support of the people at the Department of Education and in support of the original article. Ledesa acknowledges the problems with some current policies and says that
"we as teachers have the right to be angry about the simplistic portrayal of the problems in public education" 
but that that anger must be channeled productively and in a more informed way. The main point of the authors of the original article seemed to be that in the bureaucracy of 4,300, they were surprised and heartened by the
"remarkable number of smart, passionate, hard-working people who were genuinely concerned about the needs of teachers and students." 
I don't think that any of us, including Cody, who are frustrated with N.C.L.B. and Race to the Top would deny that. There are always dedicated people with sound ideas who work for the government. My father was one of them. He worked at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare before it was split up and he worked at the Department of Energy for many years after that. He was a dedicated civil servant who liked the people he worked with and who was genuinely concerned with the ramifications of his work, and so were many of his co-workers. But that doesn't mean he agreed with all of the policies coming down from the top or that he even had anything to do with some of them.

What Cody is targeting are the policies from the top that are wrong-headed and not the intelligence, intentions, civility, or dedication of the bureaucrats that administer and study certain programs that are in the fine print. The point isn't that Department of Education workers, including Secretary Duncan aren't dedicated and smart, it's that Duncan's vision and policies aren't smart and they won't work. Furthermore, I'm sure he's darn nice to career educators when he interacts with them and he says that teachers are valuable and that he respects them, but time and time again his other public statements, his policies, and his choice of advisers don't reflect that.

Friday, November 12, 2010

As New York City Public Schools Go, So Goes the World: Fight the Appointment of Cathie Black

I told myself yesterday that I would stop thinking about the whole NYCPS New Chancellor debacle, yet, here I am.

While I find the choice of Cathie Black deeply troubling (I don't live in New York, but it's the most or the second most populous school system in the country), I am buoyed by The New York Times surprisingly and sensibly critical coverage of this development, especially given my current grief over the death of quality journalism as I know it.

As The Washington Post provided near rubber stamp coverage and editorials (folks such as Bill Turque and Valerie Strauss excepted) of the Rhee/Fenty administration, so has The New York Times for Klein/Bloomberg and their mayoral and new education reform proteges.

The NYT coverage has expressed skepticism in the appointment of someone so inexperienced here. They've reported on the secret and undemocratic path that Bloomberg took in deciding to replace Klein with Black, and this piece implies cronyism in the choice. There's this article on all the challenges that would face Black. And then there's the coverage which depicts legitimate obstacles to Black's appointment. Finally, there's this "Room for Debate" forum which asks, "Who's Qualified to Run New York City Schools?" I was pleased by the thoughtfulness of many of the responses. Now, I haven't seen the New York Times editorials or columns yet. I'm dubious, though, because, for example, The Washington Post's education journalism has been far superior to the commentary.

New York University education historian Diane Ravitch wrote this illuminating blog post on the decision for The New York Review of Books. It's a scholarly look at the history of New York City Public Schools, specifically at their central administration, and while her tone is skeptical, she ends with the sentiment that New Yorkers should "give her [Black] a chance" and "wish her luck." A commenter says that her "graciousness and let's wait and see attitude should be emulated."

I agree, but only with half of this. Many Washingtonians greeted Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee with cautious optimism only to wish they hadn't. Even New Yorkers who supported Klein aren't happy with Black's impending appointment. I mean, haven't we given these business oligarchs enough of a chance to know their approach isn't appropriate for education (not to mention business--look at our economy!)? Haven't at least some of their reforms been tried previously and been shown not to work? Are the people of New York City now supposed to bend over while their public school system is being spanked into annihilation? Cathie Black has asked for "patience" while she "gets up to speed on the issues facing K-12 education." I thought that education reform was "urgent" and that we weren't supposed to waste our time "joining hands and singing 'Kumbaya'."

I say: Fight Black's appointment first. If that fails, then New York City will see if they are forced to be patient and to wish her luck.

UPDATE I: I am starting to wonder if maybe Cathie Black isn't being used as some theorize Harriet Miers was--as a sacrificial lamb so that Bush could appoint John Roberts without much protest. Bloomberg does have a history of appointing people from the business sector for public sector jobs, though, and I'm not sure who John Roberts' educational equivalent would be. Michelle Rhee? Howard Fuller?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What Happened to Joel Klein?

I've been thinking all day:

What is up with Joel Klein becoming Darth Vader? What happened to that guy? How does someone go from being a nice Jewish boy from Queens, a Supreme Court clerk, and a Department of Justice anti-trust lawyer to being the grim reaper of public education? 

Anyone? (Please comment.)

Goldman Sachs Gets Serious About (profiting from) Charter Schools

Well, well, well, if it isn't Goldman Sachs getting into the public, I mean private, I mean charter school business:

From a press release on Market Watch (I found this thanks to a post on Schools Matter):
"Providing financing for charter school facilities that benefit low- and moderate-income families is a critical component of the firm's commitment to comprehensive community development," said Alicia Glen, Managing Director and Head of the Urban Investment Group at Goldman Sachs. "To date, the Urban Investment Group has committed approximately $150 million for charter school facilities in New York and New Jersey, and we are thrilled to partner with LISC, who has been a leader in charter school finance."
Just a few weeks ago, Dana Goldstein reported on the Teach for America-Goldman Sachs Summer Internship Program. So much for encouraging those brand new teachers to learn and reflect about, say, quality teaching during the summer.

Too bad this, or now any, analogy won't show up on the SATs:

Goldman Sachs is to quality education for low and moderate income kids as BP is to a healthy eco-system in the Gulf of Mexico.

Will Fox News Soon Embrace Education Reform?

So, as I wrote yesterday,

Joel Klein resigned from his position as Chancellor of NYC public schools. Bloomberg intends to replace Mr. Klein with Cathie Black, a publishing executive with no education experience. Bloomberg's move is breathtaking in its stupidity, but given past appointments of his and his general approach, it's hardly surprising.

In this astute take on this series of events, education journalist Dana Goldstein asks, "Why on Earth" Bloomberg would appoint someone with Black's lack of qualification, and even lack of stated interest in education reform? Well, maybe because Bloomberg thinks the business model can successfully apply to running public institutions and that market-based solutions will bring success in education reform? I don't know, though, it could be that he is just an idiot. Goldstein points out the "irony" of Bloomberg appointing someone who will ostensibly help NYCPS graduates gain the skills they need to attain jobs when the industry from which Black hails is "hemorrhaging" jobs.

According to this, even parents who supported Klein are questioning this appointment. The founder of New York Charter Parents Association, Mona Davids, sounds skeptical here, as well (the expansion of charter schools was a huge part of the Klein/Bloomberg agenda): "She was surprised by Black’s appointment." As to the NYC charter school where Black sits on the board: "And, the board meetings are not public. Black sits on a board that is not accountable, that is not transparent, so for me it doesn’t bode well." 

Now, turning to Klein, he is taking a job as an executive vice-president at Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, you know, the same News Corp that owns Fox News. According to a blog at Education Week:
"He will join News Corp., the media company founded by Rupert Murdoch, as an executive vice president reporting directly to Murdoch. He also will join the company's board of directors. In a press release, the company said that Klein would advise on a number of issues, including development of business strategies for the 'emerging educational marketplace.' "
Somehow the "development of business strategies for the 'emerging educational marketplace'" at the home of Fox News doesn't sit well with me. Will the likes of Glen Beck and Sean Hannity of Fox News take a break from bashing climate change science to embrace teacher bashing and the market-based, privatizing education reforms advocated by the Obama administration, but more importantly by conservative ideologues like Broad and Walton, and libertarian-leaning (it seems to me) billionaire Gates?  But Fox News doesn't promote market-based, right-wing ideology, does it? Fox News doesn't promote reducing the government's role (though not government dollars, of course) in American institutions and life, does it? Fox News doesn't have any influence, does it? If we thought bleeding-heart hack Nicholas Kristof got education wrong, we'd better just wait and see.

I realize that I probably sound like a conspiracy theory-crazed lunatic. Believe me, in this case I'd much rather be crazy than right.

UPDATE 1: Here's Juan Gonzalez's (of the NY Daily News) take on Joel Klein's tenure and departure.

UPDATE 2: I've been thinking all day: What is up with Joel Klein becoming Darth Vader? What happened to that guy? How does someone go from being an anti-trust lawyer at the Justice Department to being the grim reaper of public education? Anyone? (If you have a theory, please comment on my next post dedicated to the topic.)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Corporate Executive for Corporate-style Reforms

In case you haven't heard the news. . .

Name of the New York City Chancellor who resigned:  Joel Klein

Job he's going to take: Executive vice-president for News Corp

His replacement: Cathie Black, a publishing executive/ oligarch

Process by which she was chosen: A public search was conducted, in some public somewhere. Gotham Schools says they know nothing of this.

Black's experience with education: Zero, except her own children were educated at Connecticut boarding schools and she sits on the board of an NYC charter school.

My reaction: Sarah Palin is starting to look reeaaally qualified.

So much for Bloomberg's being subtle about what his real agenda is.


UPDATE I: For Dana Goldstein's thoughts, go here.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Race to Remedial Classes

I've been hard at work on pieces and posts about TFA, corporate influence in public education, the Obamas' choice of school for their children, charter schools, and teacher quality. I've got credit recovery on the brain, as well.

In the meantime, this article in Richmond Magazine by Richmond-based education journalist Chris Dovi about the toxic impact of the S.O.L.s (Standards of Learning) on the quality of public education in Virginia is definitely worth a read. It is of particular interest to me given my past experience teaching in public schools in Virginia and current one of parenting two Virginia public schoolers, but no matter where you live or work, it's a must read. Dovi's central point is that the S.O.L.s are preparing the students for the test, but only the tests. Many students who perform well on these tests get to college unprepared for the rigors of the college curriculum. These aren't struggling students he's describing; they're good students who are going to colleges like V.C.U. (Virginia Commonwealth University).

When I was in ed school at George Washington University in the late 1990s, pre-N.C.L.B. (No Child Left Behind), we often discussed the impending arrival of high-stakes standardized testing. I can't think of one professor I had who wasn't against them. They weren't against standardized tests per se, but against using them as they are currently being used, i.e., for accountability purposes, or in layman's terms, as the primary evaluator of  student learning and teacher effectiveness. Because G.W. is in D.C., we looked closely at the S.O.L.s. What Dovi describes happening in this article with the S.O.L.s  under N.C.L.B. is exactly what my professors predicted would happen and what I saw happening when I was a VA teacher.

Virginia's public education system and the S.O.L.s are held up as a model for other states. Furthermore, with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's push to renew E.S.E.A. (the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which became N.C.L.B.) and the narrow focus in his Race to the Top bribery scheme on using standardized tests as the ultimate tool to evaluate student learning and teacher performance, and then tying test scores to teacher pay (and I no longer care if they're value-added since that's also problematic), we can only expect more of what Dovi describes.

Well, what's the alternative? you might ask. How about evaluating student and teacher performance this way? Or this way? In the meantime, at the very least, Dovi reports that there's talk at the Virginia Department of Education of making the standards and curriculum more rigorous and moving away from using tests with multiple-choice questions.

I used to call N.C.L.B. No Child Left Untested. In honor of Chris Dovi's account, I think I'll call it: No Child Left Behind Until They Get to College and Have to Drop Out Because They're So Unprepared. With Obama and Duncan urging a renewal of N.C.L.B. and the standardized-test accountability measures in Race to the Top, I 'm starting to run out of hope that things will change.