Saturday, July 19, 2014

Schooled by Schooled (& Silicon Valley)

I finally read The New Yorker article ("Schooled") about education reform in Newark, New Jersey. I think it was a fair piece but before I continue, a disclaimer: I assume that anything I say here could be legitimately challenged or discounted given what people who are on the ground know (there is a, hint, hint, comments section at the bottom).

So, first, it's important (for me, at least) to understand the mindset of someone like Cory Booker (former mayor of Newark and current NJ senator) and in doing that, I will be linking to one other New Yorker article that has expanded my understanding of Booker et al's approach.

"Schooled" paints a fairly (in both senses of the word) damning picture of Cory Booker, one of someone of great ambition and desire for fame but who has forgotten to match that with engagement with public.

Now, Booker never switched "sides" on education reform, nor is he a Johnny-come-lately on the topic. His view has always been that public education as an institution has poorly served disadvantaged and marginalized people. He has also always been in favor of market-based solutions: vouchers, charters, privatization, etc, to remedy this. From "Schooled":
The school-reform movement, then dominated by conservative white Republicans, saw Booker as a valuable asset. In 2000, he was invited to speak at the Manhattan Institute, in New York. He was an electrifying speaker, depicting impoverished Newark residents as captives of nepotistic politicians, their children trapped in a “repugnant” school system. "I define public education not as a publicly guaranteed space and a publicly run, publicly funded building where our children are sent based on their Zip Code,” he said. “Public education is the use of public dollars to educate our children at the schools that are best equipped to do so—public schools, magnet schools, charter schools, Baptist schools, Jewish schools.”

Furthermore, Booker was in a big hurry. Big mistake.  It's not realistic to accomplish what he wanted to accomplish in just  three years and such haste makes, well, waste. (See my post about the ill-conceived pace of modern ed reform).
Booker, now a U.S. senator, said in a recent interview that he understood families’ fear and anger: “My mom—she would’ve been fit to be tied with some of what happened.” But he characterized the rancor as “a sort of nadir,” and predicted that in two or three years Newark could be a national model of urban education. “That’s pretty monumental in terms of the accomplishment that will be.”
Booker acknowledged the missteps, but said that he had to move quickly. He and Christie could be out of office within three years. If a Democrat defeated Christie in 2013, he or she would have the backing of the teachers’ unions and might return the district to local control. “We want to do as much as possible right away,” Booker said. “Entrenched forces are very invested in resisting choices we’re making around a one-billion-dollar budget.” Participants in the meeting, who had worked for decades in Newark, were doubtful that reforms imposed over three years would be sustainable. 

Second mistake: Booker's plan was designed not of the people, by the people, for the people but of the philanthrocapitalists, by the consultants, and kind of, maybe for the people.
Early in the summer of 2010, Booker presented Christie with a proposal, stamped “Confidential Draft,” titled “Newark Public Schools—A Reform Plan.” It called for imposing reform from the top down; a more open political process could be taken captive by unions and machine politicians. Real change has casualties and those who prospered under the pre-existing order will fight loudly and viciously,” the proposal said. Seeking consensus would undercut real reform. One of the goals was to “make Newark the charter school capital of the nation.” The plan called for an “infusion of philanthropic support” to recruit teachers and principals through national school-reform organizations; build sophisticated data and accountability systems; expand charters; and weaken tenure and seniority protections. Philanthropy, unlike government funding, required no public review of priorities or spending. Christie approved the plan, and Booker began pitching it to major donors. 
In the previous decade, the foundations of Microsoft’s Bill Gates, the California real-estate and insurance magnate Eli Broad, the Walton family (of the Walmart fortune), and other billionaires from Wall Street to Silicon Valley had come to dominate charitable funding to education. Dubbed “venture philanthropists,” they called themselves investors rather than donors and sought returns in the form of sweeping changes to public schooling. In addition to financing the expansion of charter schools, they helped finance Teach for America and the development of the Common Core State Standards to increase the rigor of instruction.

So, now we see that Booker was rather modeling the reforms using a Silicon Valley model. He was highly influenced by Silicon Valley ideology and ethics and not just by Zukerberg (who if you read the article I am about to cite actually ventured outside of the Silicon valley bubble). To get a real sense of the Silicon Valley approach, read this other New Yorker article by George Packer "Change the World"--it really explains that ideology and ethics and how they are fueled by a sense of righteousness via technology, as in creating apps = act of social justice. Here Packer compares Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to financiers. When I read this article, I remember thinking, Oh, this is where so many Booker-type reformers get their language of education reform and social justice via entrepreneurialism, of "innovation," and of "revolution." This is why they sound like Apple ads.
When financiers say that they’re doing God’s work by providing cheap credit, and oilmen claim to be patriots who are making the country energy-independent, no one takes them too seriously—it’s a given that their motivation is profit. But when technology entrepreneurs describe their lofty goals there’s no smirk or wink. “Many see their social responsibility fulfilled by their businesses, not by social or political action,” one young entrepreneur said of his colleagues. “It’s remarkably convenient that they can achieve all their goals just by doing their start-up.” He added, “They actually think that Facebook is going to be the panacea for many of the world’s problems. It isn’t cynicism—it’s arrogance and ignorance.”
Also, within that there is a disdain for politics, government, and inherently in that for democratic processes:
The technology industry, by sequestering itself from the community it inhabits, has transformed the Bay Area without being changed by it—in a sense, without getting its hands dirty. Throughout most of Silicon Valley’s history, its executives have displayed a libertarian instinct to stay as far from politics and government as possible. Reid Hoffman described the attitude this way: “Look what I can do as an individual myself—everyone else should be able to do that, too. I can make a multibillion-dollar company with a little bit of investment. Why can’t the whole world do that?” But the imperative to change the world has recently led some Silicon Valley leaders to imagine that the values and concepts behind their success can be uploaded to the public sphere.
From Zuckerberg's former roommate Joe Green:
“People in tech, when they talk about why they started their company, they tend to talk about changing the world,” Green said. “I think it’s actually genuine. On the other hand, people are just completely disconnected from politics. Partly because the operating principles of politics and the operating principles of tech are completely different.” Whereas politics is transactional and opaque, based on hierarchies and handshakes, Green argued, technology is empirical and often transparent, driven by data.
And, Marc Andreessen, a partner in the venture-capital firms, Andreessen Horowitz:
 Andreessen described to me the stages of the industry’s attitude toward political engagement. The first, prevailing in the seventies and eighties, was “Just leave us alone. Let us do our thing.” T. J. Rodgers, the founder of Cypress Semiconductor, said that anyone who got involved in politics was making a big mistake, warning, “If you talk to these people, they’ll just get in your ass.” The Valley’s libertarianism—which ignores the federal government’s crucial role in providing research money—is less doctrinal than instinctive. Andreessen said, “It’s very possible for somebody to show up here—a twenty-four-year-old engineer who’s completely state of the art in building companies and products—and have had absolutely no exposure at all to politics, social issues, history. When the government shows up, it’s bad news. They go, ‘Oh, my God, government is evil, I didn’t understand how bad it was. We must fight it.’ ”
You should read the whole thing, I can't do justice to it here (or quote the whole thing despite my efforts) except to say that it will you teach you a lot about where some strains of education reform are coming from, about the way many of these reformers think. They are applying Silicon Valley thinking and solutionism to problems of public democratic institutions. In some cases they are deeply influenced by it but in others they are just paying lip service, just parroting; they don't actually understand what they're saying, nor if you consider the implications of standardization, do they really practice what they preach. I agree with Packer here:
Technology can be an answer to incompetence and inefficiency. But it has little to say about larger issues of justice and fairness, unless you think that political problems are bugs that can be fixed by engineering rather than fundamental conflicts of interest and value. Evgeny Morozov, in his new book “To Save Everything, Click Here,” calls this belief “solutionism.” Morozov, who is twenty-nine and grew up in a mining town in Belarus, is the fiercest critic of technological optimism in America, tirelessly dismantling the language of its followers. “They want to be ‘open,’ they want to be ‘disruptive,’ they want to ‘innovate,’ ” Morozov told me. “The open agenda is, in many ways, the opposite of equality and justice. They think anything that helps you to bypass institutions is, by default, empowering or liberating. You might not be able to pay for health care or your insurance, but if you have an app on your phone that alerts you to the fact that you need to exercise more, or you aren’t eating healthily enough, they think they are solving the problem.”

Back to "Schooled," while Booker looks self-serving and out of touch, Cami Anderson is portrayed as being far from the devil incarnate she is painted by some of her critics. Certainly, most of her career she has surrounded herself with the top-down, market-based reformers. Plus, her take-no-constructive-criticism management style is a deal breaker, serving as a legitimate impediment to progress, especially if you look at actions of her recent tenure such as the One Newark plan and the dismissal of employees who publicly criticized her policies. But otherwise there are a number of passages that belie the existence of some balance, for example,
Christie appointed Anderson in May, 2011. It quickly emerged that she differed with her bosses about the role of charter schools in urban districts. She pointed out that, with rare exceptions, charters served a smaller proportion than the district schools of children who lived in extreme poverty, had learning disabilities, or struggled to speak English. Moreover, charter lotteries disproportionately attracted the “choosers”—parents with the time to navigate the process. Charters in Newark were expected to enroll forty per cent of the city’s children by 2016. That would leave the neediest sixty per cent in district schools. Booker, Christie, and Zuckerberg expected Anderson to revive the district, yet as children and revenue were siphoned off she would have to close schools and dismiss teachers. Because of the state’s seniority rules, the most junior teachers would go first. Anderson called this “the lifeboat theory of education reform,” arguing that it could leave a majority of children to sink as if on the Titanic. “Your theories of change are on a collision course,” she told Cerf and Booker. As Anderson put it to me, “I told the Governor . . . I did not come here to phase the district out.”
Anderson acknowledged the successes of the top charter schools, but Newark faced the conundrum common to almost every urban school system: how to expand charters without destabilizing traditional public schools.
And it sounds as if Anderson started out okay:
One of her prime initiatives in her first two years was to close and consolidate the twelve lowest-performing kindergarten-through-eighth-grade schools into eight “renew schools.” Each was assigned a principal who, borrowing from the charter model, would choose his or her own teaching staff. The schools also got math and literacy coaches and smart boards, along with the new curricula. Teachers worked an extended day and two extra weeks in the summer. Anderson intended to create “proof points” that would show how to turn around failing district schools. 
The eight consolidated schools opened in the fall of 2012, and most won strong support from parents. At the hundred-year-old Peshine Avenue School, in the South Ward, Chaleeta Barnes, the new principal, and Tameshone Lewis, the vice-principal, both had deep Newark roots, and parents, teachers, and children responded well to their insistence on higher standards. They replaced more than half the previous year’s teachers, and the new staff coördinated efforts to improve instruction and address individual students’ academic and discipline issues. 
Teachers worked closely with children who couldn’t keep up, and many of them saw improvement, but the effects of children’s traumas outside school posed bigger problems. The father of a student in Shakel Nelson’s fifth-grade math class had been murdered early in the school year. When Nelson sat beside his desk and encouraged him, he sometimes solved problems, but as she moved on he put his head down and dropped his pencil. A girl who was excelling early in the year stopped trying when her estranged, emotionally disturbed parents resumed contact and began fighting. 
The quality of teaching and the morale in most of the renew schools improved, but only Peshine made modest gains in both math and literacy on state tests. Six others declined in one subject or both, and the seventh remained unchanged in one and increased in one. This wasn’t surprising. It takes more than a year for reforms to take hold and show up in test scores. Across the district, in Anderson’s first two years, the percentage of students passing the state’s standardized tests declined in all but two of the tested grades. She questioned the validity of the tests, saying that they had become harder and the students needier, although she used them to determine which schools were failing and required overhaul. After her first year, she announced a ten-per-cent gain in the high-school graduation rate, but A.C.T. scores indicated that only two per cent of juniors were prepared for college. 
Anderson recognized that the schools needed more social and emotional support, but pointed out that Newark already spent more money per student than almost every other district in the country. She urged principals to shift their existing budgets accordingly. “There’s no pot of gold,” she said.
Also, she knew the trade-offs. One of my (and others) biggest critiques of the reformers is that they say they only are "for the kids" but they don't seem to connect in any meaningful way the kids' success to the success via decent working conditions and living wages of their parents. I've written about this before. It's hard to believe they are "for the kids" when their education reform industry feeds off of profits squeezed out of the kids' parents. Wal-Mart under-pays Mr. Smith (not to mention factory workers who work on the supply side). Walmart makes huge profits. Huge profits go into foundation and pay Jane TFA Edu-crat's salary. Anderson, however, seemed to understand the value to the public of a vigorous public sector:
Improbably, a district with a billion dollars in revenue and two hundred million dollars in philanthropy was going broke. Anderson announced a fifty-seven-million-dollar budget gap in March, 2013, attributing it mostly to the charter exodus. She cut more than eighteen million dollars from school budgets and laid off more than two hundred attendance counsellors, clerical workers, and janitors, most of them Newark residents with few comparable job prospects. “We’re raising the poverty level in Newark in the name of school reform,” she lamented to a group of funders. “It’s a hard thing to wrestle with.”
It's incredible how much both Booker and Anderson have spent on consultants. This is also the case in other reformy systems such as DCPS. In fact, NCLB is sometimes referred to as No Consultant Left Behind.
During the next two years, more than twenty million dollars of Zuckerberg’s gift and matching donations went to consulting firms with various specialties: public relations, human resources, communications, data analysis, teacher evaluation. Many of the consultants had worked for Joel Klein, Teach for America, and other programs in the tight-knit reform movement, and a number of them had contracts with several school systems financed by Race to the Top grants and venture philanthropy. The going rate for individual consultants in Newark was a thousand dollars a day. Vivian Cox Fraser, the president of the Urban League of Essex County, observed, “Everybody’s getting paid, but Raheem still can’t read.”
Once Anderson was appointed, this reckless spending on consultants continued:
Anderson turned her immediate attention to the district’s schools. She gave principals more flexibility and introduced new curricula aligned to the Common Core standards. Using $1.8 million from the Foundation for Newark’s Future, she hired the nonprofit consulting group TNTP, in part to develop more rigorous evaluation systems. In her first year, the foundation gave her a four-million-dollar grant to hire consultants at her own discretion.
Anderson spent much of the fall working with data analysts from the Parthenon Group, an international consulting firm that received roughly three million dollars over two years from Newark philanthropy.

Also, what occurred in Newark seems to confirm that the reform plan involves orchestrating "failure" of the public schools. Particularly disturbing is the account of two Newark principals (charter and division) working together to decrease criminal activity on school grounds wherein the district principal had to ask the charter principal to place the call to police because he knew they would respond to her versus him. This is unconscionable:
Jackson had never got the police to respond adequately to his pleas for improved security. Gangs periodically held nighttime rites on school grounds, and Jackson reported them without result. One night, a month after spark settled into Carver, a security camera captured images of nine young men apparently mauling another.When Jackson and Belcher arrived the next morning, they found bloody handprints on the wall and blood on the walkway. His and Belcher’s calls to police and e-mails to the superintendent’s staff went unanswered. At Jackson’s request, Belcher e-mailed the Mayor, attaching three pictures of the bloody trail on “the steps our K-2 scholars use to enter the building.” Twenty minutes later, Booker responded: “Joanna, your email greatly concerned me. I have copied this email to the police director who will contact you as soon as possible. Cory.” The police director, Sam DeMaio, called, and the precinct captain and the anti-gang unit visited the school. Police presence was stepped up, and the gang moved on.

Shavar Jeffries, one of the recent Newark mayoral candidates, the one who lost, sums up the situation well:
Shavar Jeffries believes that the Newark backlash could have been avoided. Too often, he said, “education reform . . . comes across as colonial to people who’ve been here for decades. It’s very missionary, imposed, done to people rather than in coöperation with people.” Some reformers have told him that unions and machine politicians will always dominate turnout in school-board elections and thus control the public schools. He disagrees: “This is a democracy. A majority of people support these ideas. You have to build coalitions and educate and advocate.” As he put it to me at the outset of the reform initiative, “This remains the United States. At some time, you have to persuade people.”

People like Cami Anderson, even if full of hubris, may start out with a balanced perspective and with a plan to improve public institutions from within and in partnership with the public. But while, indeed, leadership style was a problem in Newark, I mostly see it as a problem of plutocracy and of the continued disenfranchisement of disadvantages and marginalized communities in the name of education reform.

There is no incentive or obligation to be accountable to the people on the receiving end of current education policies. People like Cami Anderson don't seem to feel that they are answerable to the public. Rather, they are accountable to politicians and to "investors." On top of that, there's the influence of government-is-the-problem libertarians and enablers from Silicon Valley, replete with intolerance of democratic processes.

This is much like the problems I see with the Common Core in that even if the standards are good, they will falter if filtered through our rigid, skill-based testing accountability structure. People like Cami Anderson, dictatorial style aside, who might be knowledgeable and passionate about education and about educating children who have been ill-served by public institutions, will also falter when their leadership is filtered through the plutocratic blob that seems to have railroaded our democracy.

1 comment:

  1. Good piece Rachel and yes everyone should read the two New Yorker articles.