Thursday, April 23, 2009

Who's in the Driver's Seat

Online arguments about school reform between the two predominant opposing factions repeat themselves over and over and over. One side argues that the entire existing urban school system needs to be scrapped and replaced. They want to see a model which implements at least some of the following: new employment strategies for teachers, more and more charter schools, and new systems for running school districts which are similar to those which have been developed by business. Un-chartered charter territory, so to speak.

Their opponents believe that the schools – and the teachers in them – have been exclusively and unfairly blamed for the low achievement, and resents that they are called “failures” by the other group. This side believes the teachers are under attack for the consequences of things for which they have no control, namely poverty. They would like to see increased levels of support to their students and their families including smaller class sizes, quality preschool, health clinics at school sites, and strong after school programs.

As far as I can tell, the bridges between these two groups are non-existent.

A few of weeks ago on, I expressed my resentment about the philosophy and supposed “help” from the venture philanthropists, like the Walton family, Bill Gates, and Eli Broad. This sparked an exchange with another reader named Stuart Buck, who I eventually investigated to discover is a Harvard-educated attorney working as a Research Associate at the University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform. This department was created from an unprecedented gift from the pro-charter Walton family and is headed by Jay Greene, a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. As Gomer Pyle would say, "Surprise, surprise, surprise!"

In the exchange, I had made a comment about how the "pro-charter forces have swooped into the communities with the weakest ability to fight (least educated, high illiteracy, non-English, immigrant, etc.)." It stimulated this response from Stuart Buck:

It's truly amazing to see this kind of demonization. And it's a catch-22. If rich people started schools for rich kids, well that would be segregative, elitist, etc. But let a few rich people finally say, "I'm going to do my best to help poor communities," then the knee-jerk status quo folks accuse them of somehow victimizing the poor communities.

I replied:

I don't have a problem with rich people helping poor communities by trying to improve their public schools. But I do have a problem when they don't directly and closely consult with those communities first, but instead presume to know what is needed.

For years, one of my local philanthropists, Gary Rogers of Dreyer's Ice Cream fortune, has had a program called the Rocky Road Community Bus. Teachers apply for a day when this decorated, special bus picks up their class and takes them on a field trip to anywhere they want. The waiting list is perpetually very long, even hopelessly so.

Kids who grow up in poor communities don't have parents with minivans who drive them to museums, aquariums, parks, and other wonderful places. I recall a 7th grade teacher telling me that in one of his classes, half of the kids had already been to Europe, and that in another class half of the kids had never even been to San Francisco (16 miles away). At that time the school had "accelerated" and "non-accelerated" classes; guess which one was which.

Wouldn't it be marvelous for inner-city kids if there were many more buses like the Dreyer’s bus, and if the program even paid for entrance fees and provided a great lunch? What if non-working parents were invited to come along, too? Middle-class families get to do this all the time; the experiences open eyes, foster curiosity, and give inspiration.

Supporting school libraries is another thing philanthropists could do. My guess is that public schools in many cities are experiencing the same neglected situation that is going on in Oakland. Most schools here have a physical library space and a collection of books from the old days, but they aren't staffed because schools haven’t been able to afford librarians for years. If staffing needs were met, the libraries would also need more reading materials and up-to-date library technology (bar codes, magnetic swiping, etc.). Why don't billionaires adopt all those dead school libraries and bring them back to life? With some support, they could be turned into thriving local centers of learning that could be open before and after school, maybe even a night or two so whole families could stop by. Isn't promoting literacy in this population one of the main goals?

Low income parents aren't as likely to attend school meetings, because they don't feel connected with the school and/or because sacrificing that time and effort is a true family hardship. They’d be a lot more likely to attend if good food and childcare was provided, if great things are raffled off, and if transportation assistance is given. Overwhelmed inner-city public school administrators don't have the funding and time to develop programs that would entice poor parents to attend their useful meetings. Why couldn't the rich people form a non-profit that would provide the schools with positive programs like this?

In the seven years I was working at my local school, it astounded me to watch computer after computer get purchased, but then languish in the corner because the district didn't have enough computer techs to set them up and keep them running. When things went wrong with a working computer, it could easily take months before a tech would respond from the district's IT department; there just isn't enough staff. Lucky schools here have parents or teachers who take on computer maintenance as a do-gooder side job. Also, it's not unusual to find that the internet doesn't functioning properly in older school buildings. The idea of having working wireless seems like light years away. Why doesn't computer mega-mogul Bill Gates narrow his focus and help the schools with that?

Parents who want to volunteer in schools in my district must now be willing to pay the $90 for fingerprinting every year. My local middle school used to have three school counselors, one for each grade; now it has only one. Why won't the edu-philanthropists sponsor those things? I KNOW it would help. On and on and on. There are so many things that would truly help the traditional neighborhood public schools and the kids in them, other than closing them down and replacing them with charters.

I wish the billionaires would stop their charter pushing and send teams into the public schools to assess what the grassroots needs are. The team could interview teachers, students, principals, parents, school security staff, secretaries, etc. and ask, "What things do you need to help you do a better job?" A lot of useful things could be learned by consulting directly with the common people. Then the immense resources could be used to improve the quality of life at the existing schools, to increase the schools’ ability to function, and to boost teacher morale. Extra targeted support would work wonders.

Of course, my entire response is on a presumption that the true intention of these people has been simply to "help," but I am not convinced that it is. At any rate, if they had done something as sensible as the things I am suggesting, the two of us wouldn't be engaged in this testy conversation now.

Stuart Buck responded:

Those all sound like great causes. That said, I'm still not sure why people who, from their perspective, are trying to help should have to be limited to the few things that you would personally approve.

Put it this way. There are people in the world who have a different perspective from you, and who don't necessarily agree with everything that you say.

From their perspective, the world of education is somewhat like Microsoft having a monopoly on computer systems, and they see themselves as wanting to start up a better alternative (such as Apple, or Linux, etc.).

Still viewing things from their perspective, these people see you and your ideological kin as making the following argument:

"I hate all these people who are trying to destroy Microsoft by targeting poor computer users for their propaganda about having a choice among computers. If these rich folks were really interested in helping computer users, they would spend all their time and money volunteering for Microsoft. For example, they could donate money for Microsoft to hire more personnel to answer the phones for technical support. Or they could donate more money for Microsoft to make more user-friendly versions of its products."

Again viewing things from their perspective, these people think that your argument is odd. Who says it's written in stone that all computer users must use Microsoft, and that the only way to improve the computer experience is to do it by specifically giving more money to Microsoft? Maybe Microsoft itself could figure out some ways to improve with a little more healthy competition. And maybe Apple isn't an evil conspiracy trying to "target" people; instead, it's just a company that's trying to grow specifically by helping people.

I could spell out the analogy to schools, but that would be rather tedious. You get the point, I'm sure.

So that’s their point of view. And because they have billions of dollars to make what they want to happen happen – from paying for propaganda to influencing politicians – that’s where the rest of us are being taken now.

Sorry kids. I tried making these people aware that you deserve nice things, too, but they aren't interested in listening. They have their own idea of what's best for you.


Ted said...

It is revealing that Mr. Buck can only respond with a business analogy. I also find it disgusting that he begins his response with an ad hominem attack in which he reveals that he expects you to follow his reasoning, but he is incapable of following yours - "That said, I'm still not sure why people who, from their perspective, are trying to help should have to be limited to the few things that you would personally approve."
(Your point was not that Walton should support your personal wish list, but that if the rich were interested in helping more than dominating, they would work with schools rather than destroying them.)
The central conflict in the privatization issue has to do with whether you believe or not that a business model is the best way to deliver public services, whether they are bombs, letters, water, health care or kindergarten. We have heard Mr. Buck's flawed analogy many times already. What he did not do was directly address the central issue in your letter: who controls the schools in your neighborhood?
Since Mr. Buck works for gazillionaires who live in a heavily guarded bunker, we probably shouldn't be too surprised at his bunkered thinking.

Tom Hoffman said...

I don't have a problem with philanthropists funding charter schools, lobbying, etc. What I do have a problem with is the accelerating trend of getting pro-charter/privatization people put in charge of public school districts. Or even if you don't literally have a "pro-charter" supe, you might have one who was coincidentally trained by Broad to implement a centralized command and control structure (i.e., the opposite of what's supposed to make charters effective) and a set of "reforms" which haven't been shown to actually increase achievements of graduates of your system.

To use Mr. Buck's analogy, it is like Microsoft buying up Apple share and replacing Steve Jobs with Steve Ballmer. That's not competition and its a long way beyond advocacy.

The Perimeter Primate said...

One fantasy project that I may, or not, be able to get around to doing is to tally up the amount of money these venture philanthropists have spent on their self-created non-profit recipients for their one special cause (“…transforming of K-12 urban public education…” by building, developing, and sustaining a network of charter schools, alternative teacher and educational leadership training programs, charter school real estate development organizations, charter school and voucher advocacy, and "research" institutions).

Then my next step would be to make a list of other "causes" that could be labeled as due for reform, like immigration, drug laws, affirmative action, etc. Even the KKK’s philosophy is to push for something they see needing reform. Heck, I even read that some of its chapters are non-profit. For instance what if hundreds of millions of dollars had been spent on a network of KKK clubs, leader training programs, real estate development, KKK idea advocacy, and their idea of “research” institutions?

So I am going to imagine what one would happen if one of those other causes had been the target for all the billionaires’ largess, and speculate how everyone would react. Of course, just as with the charter school business, if enough money had been spent on spreading disinformation through the media, most people would think their little project would be fine.

Tom, I agree with your primary concern about the placement of pro-charter forces in education command centers and the reasons why, but their excessive lobbying and tremendous charter school support bothers me, too. We should all be alarmed that one very small group of people, because of their unfathomable and unprecedented relative wealth, now have unfathomable and unprecedented power as they push for a rapid breakdown and permanent transformation of the US school system, all in the name of giving “help.”

lodesterre said...

The analogy Mr. Buck makes is pretty much ridiculous in nature. It does place education on a business model and states that this is what it should be. The tired old idea that a competitive business model would create better schools (ala Friedman) has done nothing for the betterment of our schools. How about a garden analogy? Let's say we see a garden, run down, overgrown with weeds, but still bearing fruits and vegetables. Do we bulldoze the garden and start over? Do we ignore it and start a garden next to it in the hopes that our garden will cause the run-down garden to suddenly start taking care of itself? Or do we invest some time and energy in weeding out the garden, helping the undernourished plants back to a better state and allowing that garden, with our help, to thrive?

Anonymous said...

So much of commerce and big-business/stock-market goings-on are actually about FEELINGS.

You know, the FEELING that this junk paper I'm selling you is worth something, the FEELING that real-estate prices will forever rise, etc etc

Commerce-based values are a poor standard to run society by, as proved by the economic meltdowns, both current and past.

The more "business values" seep into other areas of society, the more society becomes corrupted, from our wars and foreign policy, to our environmental and energy policies, health-related policies, etc etc----All currently in a state of emergency/damage-control.

Stuart Buck stands for exactly those "business values".

He probably plays golf with a $1300 Platinum driver and has a nifty investment portfolio too.

Educational services are now around 10% of US GNP!

Folks like Buck helped
us get there.

And they are not done yet.


Bob Heiny said...

Kudos to Stuart Buck for articulating one of many alternative views. That's one part of a democratic as well as a respected educative process. No harm in that.

The bridge I see among any of these efforts rests on student academic achievement. That's a common dependent variable. No harm in that.

Differences appear as to whether other efforts (community participation in decision making, etc.) are means or ends for schooling. No harm in discussing these differences.

Probably, civil discussions will lead to changes in schools. Probably also, not everyone will be pleased with all of these changes. No harm in that either.


nikto said...

Figuratively speaking, "Too many cooks" is a big problem today with Public Schools.

And some of those so-called "cooks" can't even boil water (again, figuratively speaking).

Every outsider is an expert
these days.

Naval Admirals get to fail at running school districts.

A veteran teacher could run the Navy better than the Admiral has a school district (LAUSD).

Portfolio managers become Gods of Education.

Treating perceived "failure" with more FAIL----The logic of
the "reformers".