US Department of Education Inks Contract with Wharton and Harvard Business Schools to Prepare Teachers and Manage “Failing” Schools!

 

Just kidding… I hope.   Watching the legislatures of more than 30 states move to privatize their public school systems via increased choice, charter and voucher options further increases our commitment to treating the education of our children more like a business and makes such a partnership seem almost inevitable.

NOTE:  This post will offer observations (and possible insight) into the growth of charter and voucher programs.  In the interest of full disclosure, while serving as an Assistant Commissioner in the NJ Department of Education, one of my responsibilities was to oversee the approval, evaluation and, sometimes, closure of charter schools.

I’d like to apologize for my “disappearance” for the past few weeks and suggest that you get a glass or two of your favorite adult beverage. This one is long!

In addition to struggling with the hacking of my email account, I’ve been struggling with finding a way to connect two seemingly disparate ideas. In the first of these, our small team, the Four Amigos1, has been engaged during our weekly chats with growing disappointment and appropriate response to the apparent loss of opportunity that the pandemic has presented – i.e., the opportunity to revisit the way we think about learning and schooling. This has been all the more troubling because it seemed that we were seeing an increase in discussions about the ways we might use the experiences of the last 18 months to unlearn what we know about schooling and rediscover what we know about the learning.

The second issue is one I’ve steered clear of in previous blogs… the increasingly obvious and planned assault on our system of public education.  Over the time I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve worked pretty hard to shy away from political statements.  But I need to highlight here something that has been happening and which cries out for our attention..  Depending on where you reside, you will be more or less familiar with the significant push to increase choice options for parents.  What has been less clear and what has received minimal attention in the media is the dramatic increase in such efforts and the source of the financial support for them. 

Critical Concerns

  • What these choice, charter and voucher policies have in common is that they are all funded by allowing the aid that is received by public schools to follow the child to their new school, in many cases significantly decreasing the amount of funding remaining for the public schools. Bruce Baker is Professor in the Rutgers’ Graduate School of Education.  His recent research focuses on state aid allocation policies and practices.  His findings referenced here  focus on the impact of a the diversion of state aid dollars to various choice options… 

 This is not intended as a criticism of charter schools. In my time as Assistant Commissioner as well as a national consultant, I visited a number of charter schools.  Some were exceptional, many were not. 

  • Charter schools and/or voucher, tax credit or scholarship programs have been around for a while, but what we are witnessing is an unprecedented influx of private money in local school board elections and the creation and lobbying efforts by so called “AstroTurf” lobbying groups… groups with names that imply parent leadership, parent participation as well as the right to choose, at public expense, schools other than those in the public system. Closer investigation reveals minimal participation or direction by parents, often providing a kind of anonymity for ultra-conservative or libertarian libertarian billionaires.  The climate of uncertainty about how and when schools will be open and what type of instruction will be provided when schools are open, has left many parents and community members unsettled and concerned.
  • Although originally designed and promoted as “laboratory schools” … schools that would improve learning by being unhindered by bureaucracy or stifled by regulation, a large percentage of the charters and charter school chains are, de facto, for-profit enterprises. 
  • The federal government has devoted millions of dollars to charter program seeding and support. Recent reports revealed that a huge portion of that funding went to charter schools that never opened or have closed. Regular readers of this blog will recognize the name of Jan Resseger.  Jan is an exceptionally talented researcher and writer who works tirelessly in support of the maintenance of a viable and equitable system of public education.    Here , Jan details how the Federal Charter Schools Program has enabled the academic and fiscal abuses by for-profit charter operators. 

The Real Danger of Privatization – an economic theory on life-support

 While many of us have been blessed with education, careers, and standards of living that are more than adequate to ensure our survival,  we are becoming increasingly confronted by inconvenient truths about the lives of too many of our fellow citizens.  While we are regularly exposed to media, politician, and pundit praise for the accomplishments of our country, the reality of many challenges such pictures.  While we continue to canonize the American system of free enterprise, we currently live in the poorest rich country among industrialized countries.  We have the highest education costs, the highest health care costs, the shortest lifespans, the highest incarceration rates. Are we now to believe that the folks that brought us to this would be the ideal designers and providers of education for our kids?

Don’t like the measures I chose to highlight?  How about what has already been done to our kids?  Look at the public investment in education since the Great Depression of 2008.  The majority of states, primarily those whose elected leaders self-identify as fiscally conservative or libertarian, have yet to restore school funding by their state to levels prior to 2008! 

In an article  which appeared in the NY Times Magazine prior to COVID, the writer shared data that indicated we were  in a time when the incidence of pre-adolescent stress, anxiety, depression and even suicide had never been higher! Has our focus during the past 30 years of educational reform been on increasing counseling services, improving social and emotional health?  It has not.  In fact, since the Great Recession of 2008, the majority of states have not yet returned school spending to pre-recession levels.  This before the increase in such issues connected to the pandemic.

While our kids were suffering in increasing numbers,  we “enjoyed” the great accountability movement… the improvement of education by adopting the practices of business … Hours and hours of state and federally mandated tests, a whole new market for test prep materials, rewritten standards-based textbooks, student data available for sale, attacks on the skills and commitment of teachers., etc., etc., etc.  Education has become business, indeed BIG business…Billions are spent annually to design and administer large-scale state-wide assessments.  Billions are spent on the purchase of technology required to take the tests. Billions are spent both publicly and privately to purchase test prep materials and tutoring services. And now, we see the hijacking of research promoting  the benefits of individually tailored learning experiences with the press for “personalized” learning… a term most frequently used to justify the purchase of computer delivered and paced software which is anything but “personalized”.  The great business model direction has turned our kids into commodities… commodities whose data can be used to target ads, determine Facebook feeds, and distance them even further from the connection so important to their development as functioning adults.  Less personal contact under the guise of “personalized” learning? To be identified by their test scores?  Is this what we want for our kids?  As parents? As educators?

What to do

I’ve spent a lot of time in schools.  I spend a lot of time listening to the experiences of families, kids, and educators.  This is not a solely a red or a blue issue.  The changes and conditions that I have shared here have occurred during the administrations of both Democrats and Republicans.  One of the Greek philosophers once said that the health of a society is measured by the way it treats its weakest members, the very young and the very old.  We’re not doing well on either right now. 

What to do now is to get involved.  Know what is happening in your schools/in your state 

  • Go to a board meeting. See how many topics deal with kids and their learning?  How many items are really about adult convenience, management, compliance?  Look at your school’s mission statement and ask what specific experiences they provide to make the mission a reality. 
  • Contact legislators… local, state, and federal. Affirm that it is the right of parents to have their kids attend the school of their choice.  Affirm as well that it is not the right of parents to have the costs of these choice decisions paid by government nor it is appropriate to have the costs of such choices reduce the ability of the public schools to offer equitable to all students regardless of socio-economic status, race, gender, or disability.
  • Work to reduce the impact of billionaire philanthropists can have on social policies which reflect their individual agendas more than the good of our children. See here  For background on the mixed blessings of the rise of philanthropy in the past two decades.

Summary

  • I am not a fan of the current version of education… a test and punish culture driven for the past 30+ years by federal programs such as NCLB, Race to the Top, Every Child Succeeds, etc.  I am, however, a huge fan of a system of taxpayer supported public education. 
  • Our current system of public education (and only recently the content of that system) is under attack for ideological and political reasons which have little or nothing to do with improving the lives of children.
  • The attack on public education is a part of a much larger campaign to reduce the size of government and to move many, if not all, public services to private enterprise.
  • This has become an ideological struggle guided to a large extent by significant amount of philanthropic dollars offers by billionaires who have never set foot in a public school.
  • Education in the US has become a huge business and source of income for a limited number of large corporations. In the process of developing these sources of income, our children have become both commodities and consumers… commodities whose data has huge value and consumers of large-scale assessments, as well as of test-prep materials and services.
  • Early experiences with alternatives to traditional public schooling – i.e., vouchers, tax-free scholarships, charter school programs — have produced mixed results at best and have significantly limited the programming for students remaining in the traditional public schools.
  • The experience with the pandemic version of education has encouraged criticism of district responses to both safety and learning. The concept of “learning loss” has been promoted as yet another “failure” of the public school system. 

Normally this would be the place for a kind of motivational paragraph… one that moves the reader to action.  If you’ve read this far, you don’t need such a closing.  What you may need is time to reflect and a place to express your reactions… a time to reflect on individual responsibilities when it has become clear that something very important to us has been or is being threatened. It is also a time for action … a time to speak with friends, local school leaders and politicians, representatives in state government and let them know that big money and big business should not be architects of the education our kids should receive. This is about grownups behaving badly… needing to be right, needing to win, and treating the children of this generation as pawns in a game in which there will be no winners.   

Thank you for your continued support of my writing. Be well.   

 1Some time ago, while participating in Will Richardson’s on-line community, Modern Learners, I had the good fortune to develop relationships with three very talented colleagues (two us were from the US while two resided and worked in Canada).   We found common ground in the realization that, as committed as we all are to the concept of publicly funded education for all, education in each of our countries had become more about schooling than about learning. Distressed by this realization, we decided to see what we could do to bring the focus back the learner.  Our areas of interest and expertise are as diverse as our experiences.  For two years now we have met weekly to support our mutual growth and to offer our learning to others. 

3 thoughts on “

  1. Hey, Rich. It was nice speaking with you the other day, although the circumstances of your email being hacked wasn’t great. Happy to see you have successfully dealt with the problem.

    The issue you address here is a very important one. Many parents cannot afford to place their children in some of the schools you highlight. Even more frightening is that many parents of color or parents in the lowest socio-economic areas are not even made aware of these opportunities. And, by the time they may be made aware, all of the spaces are filled. Communication channels, access to technology and the ability to navigate the system have become huge stumbling blocks for low-income parents and many parents of color. And, as you have stated, with the funding following the students who leave, many public schools, that are already under funded, are left in an even more challenging situation.

    Since you have so eloquently defined this issue, I will not attempt to summarize or add to it. However, I sincerely hope you don’t mind me placing this educational issue into a larger particularly alarming context of which I am certain you and your readers are aware.

    The issue you have highlighted is one of the ways “Big Money” is attempting to keep everything in this country male and white. Whether it is: Attacking public education; Minimizing opportunities for poor people and people of color to vote; Purchasing media outlets in order to control the messages; Hiding from an investigation of complicit activities regarding the January 6 insurrection; Providing tax cuts for the rich while reducing Social Security, etc.; or disparaging and attacking legal immigration; Those (not all) white males, who for generations have been able to use their wealth to maintain power, are realizing that this country is no longer the one where their ancestors decimated the indigenous population nor to which they brought slaves. It is all about gaining and maintaining power!

    Even Thomas Jefferson realized the importance of education. He is credited with the quote: “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” That is true for ALL people, not just a subset of the population.

    I realize the last two paragraphs are my personal perceptions and beliefs. However, I believe they add an important context to an very important issue that we are facing related to the continuance of a system of “Public Education.”

    Like

  2. Ken,

    I see what is happening with the billioaire “philanthropists” in education as a kind of Trojan Horse for the much greater issues you raise. I fear for the viability of our system as it is evolving and see the ways in which a kind of oligarchy is determing the social policies of the country… the majority of these focuses on/emphasizing “I” rather than “we”. While I’m not suggesting communism as a solution, our continued commitment to a kind of unfettered capiatlism seems to be a validation of Marx’s thoughts that capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction. Thanks for seeing and sharing the connections of what is happening in schooling to the much larger picture. One of my favorite quotes comes from Russell Ackoff who shared that “there is a difference between trying to do things right and doing the right thing”. We are a nation steeped in the history of and commitment to white supremacy. Because we have so much trouble acknowledging this, we cntinue to spend time and money on trying to wrong things “righter” but never (OK, rarely) get to the root issues. Lot more to add to this… I’ve tried to deal with some it it in previous blogs. Be well. Great connecting again. Rich

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