Sunday, September 27, 2009
Monday, September 21, 2009
Ben Chavis is out and about, gloriously soaking up the attention for the “miracles” he has produced. After all, it was Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Milton Friedman-loving bodybuilder-turned-action-hero-actor-turned-governor-of-California, who visited Chavis’ school (one-half mile from my home in
"I was really impressed; everything I've read about this school is absolutely true," he said after touring the American Indian Public Charter School, off
in the MacArthur Boulevard Laurel . "It is an education miracle." District
So who am I to challenge this claim?
One of Chavis’s more recent forays into the national public limelight resulted in an incident lovingly described by Whitney Tilson, a top elite-school-trained investment manager, minor TV business celebrity, and aggressively connected Democratic, "no excuses" charter-school adoring, neo-liberal education reformer who resides in Manhattan posts his family photos for public viewing of YouTube and Picasa, and sends his own children to the exclusive upper West Side private school which served as the inspiration for Gossip Girls.
At a public education forum last April, Tilson witnessed Ben Chavis’ aggressive verbal attack on New York City Council Member Charles Barron. According to Tilson, Barron was approached by Chavis who said,
“You're a mother f-ing black pimp, you're f-ing our kids. Come to the reservation and I'll beat your ass. You want our kids to take Home Ec? YOU should wear a dress!"
Lovely, just lovely – what a great behavior to model for his students who hope to find success in the larger society.
For those of us in
Chavis’ cocky, rude public personality is not the biggest pet peeve I have about the glamorization of the American Indian Public Charter Schools. It’s that no “miracles” have been produced at the schools, yet the myth keeps getting perpetuated.
One of Ben Chavis’ major "innovations" is that he has narrowed the type of student (and parent!) who uses his schools. I’d describe his technique as "lower income parent ability grouping," along with careful culling of high performing, brown-skinned kids, such as the children of the local public elementary school principal.
Chavis has never shown that he can wrought change with the original type of student who attended AIPCS before his arrival, and these are the students who are the most needy, most resistant, and most challenging.
To me this very important detail is the one I try to impress on people by revealing the demographic changes and some personal anecdotes, such as the astonishment of a local public middle school teacher I knew who upon learning that that one of her former sixth grade students (who had transferred to AIPCS for seventh grade and was quoted in the paper remarking how well he was doing there) said, “But he was a straight-A student when he was here!”
For some reason, my argument (which I think is a very good one) rarely gets a direct response from AIPCS/Chavis defenders. They just continue on in their unbroken stride of praising the school and its accomplishments. The next level of discussion never gets reached, which is: Since traditional public schools must serve ALL types of families and students – making it impossible for them to duplicate the Chavis model – is there anything at all in the AIPCS story which could be used to make positive changes elsewhere?
Honestly, we must face the fact that Chavis’ magic only works with compliant students and parents. If they aren’t sufficiently compliant, they either don’t apply to the school, or they withdraw from it when they realize that what goes on there is just too much.
Automatically, the school contains a set of students and parents who are pre-dedicated to doing exactly what Chavis demands in terms of school assignments, attending school, and behaving well.
What principal wouldn't succeed under those circumstances?
The school’s approach is well known by now. Students and parents are required to commit to a behavior contract, of which there is the expectation of strict adherence. Parents and students are made aware of the specific consequences for not meeting those expectations, then the school is given full authority to act in whatever way it needs to in order to enforce the expectations.
For the students/parents who stray off course, Ben Chavis' model is to apply intense pressure on them in an attempt to force compliance, and I’m sure it works in many cases. Humiliation and fear of being humiliated can work wonders; it's a well-known torture tool.
The consequences for non-compliance probably range from reasonable to intolerable, depending on one’s personal view. I personally wouldn’t mind if my children were forced to pick up garbage if they were caught littering, but I would have a huge problem if the principal dressed them down by screaming profanity in their faces.
At any rate, the pressure does become so intense at AIPCS that students and parents will withdraw from the school if they are unable or unwilling to comply. Over time, this distills the school's population into an ever-more-compliant and timid set of students and parents; a certain factor in making test scores rise.
Just think what all our schools would be like if they only contained students and families who had been whittled down to be the ones who were most compliant? This situation is probably every principal’s and teacher’s ultimate fantasy.
So the next big question for me is why doesn’t my school district give the traditional public schools some sharper teeth so they can demand and enforce compliance, too? And how much, realistically, could students and parents be actually forced to comply? I’m talking about forcing them to show up in classes on time, where they are forced to do the assigned work and behave appropriately. No excuses. What happens to the ones which don’t comply might have to be actually addressed at some point.
I will say loud and clear that many urban secondary school parents and teachers long for stronger, more consistently-followed discipline policies at their schools. For some reason, there is a lack of motivation at administrative levels, and a lack of manpower or know-how to implement the policies which exist. Rather than taking the time to become involved and pressure the schools to deal with this situation, many of the most compliant and responsible parents just flee the system to the suburbs or the charters – causing mechanical erosion of the public schools.
In the meantime, public school districts could either make a choice of just sitting by and watching more and more of their most compliant and responsible families get siphoned off by charter schools which are permitted to operate by different rules, or they could become proactive and find a way to give their traditional public schools sharper teeth for competing with the charters. Or, the districts could actually insist that charters take, and keep, their fair share of the most difficult-to-educate students.
Ben Chavis presence in the media is all about sensationalism. The attention he constantly gets is totally out of proportion to his accomplishments because, given the big picture, only a tiny number of students have ever attended his schools. It’s as if no public school students in
So despite his 15 minutes of fame, Chavis overall contribution to improving schools and public education reform will prove to be negligible, because it will be impossible to take his cherry-picking approach to scale. And although in my opinion many schools could definitely use more structure and consistent discipline, it's only the dream of people like Tilson – who are quite out of touch with the realities in these schools – that widespread strict compliance can be forced upon the hungry, neglected, and very angry children of our vast underclass.
A few weeks ago, when Chavis’ commentary entitled, “Who says public schools need more money?” appeared on CNN.com (a feat no doubt arranged by his book promoters; I guess a movie, mugs and t-shirts are next), he failed to mention that his own schools have been the recipients of generous supplementary funding courtesy of the Walton Family Foundation.* It is known in Oakland that when Chavis was on-site as the AIPCS principal, he only drew a negligible salary because he had considerable personal income sources from elsewhere (property ownership). That difference probably accounts for how he helped pay for some extras at his school, like giving cash rewards to students. No extra money needed, indeed.
Here’s one last piece of local gossip about AIPCS recently relayed to me by another local parent. It might be true or not, but the source is definitely reliable. Apparently, an AIPCS student who was sick with Swine Flu and was coughing blood a few weeks ago was told by the school to “come anyway.” What a great example of “no excuses” perfect attendance, which is worth any cost to some, I suppose.
*Information from the National Center for Charitable Statistics:
2005 Form 990 (for grants given in 2004)
- American Indian Public Charter School = $20,000
In 2004-05, the total student enrollment was 150 kids. Only one school was in operation. From his Walton sources, Chavis received an additional $133.33 to spend on each student that year.
2006 Form 990 (for grants given in 2005)
- American Indian Public Charter School = $230,000
In 2005-06, the total student body was 196 kids. Only one school was in operation. From his Walton sources, Chavis received an additional $1173.47 to spend on each student that year.
2007 Form 990 (for grants given in 2006)
In 2006-07, the total student body of this high school was 72 kids. Two schools were in operation that year, AIPCS and AIPHS. From his Walton sources, Chavis received an additional $3194.44 to spend on each student at his high school that year.
Friday, September 11, 2009
A High School Teacher Responds to Obama’s Speech to StudentsObama’s Back-to-School speech deserves commentary on many points. Here I am going to simply mention some telling assumptions that are laced through the presentation.
The President, of course, gets some points for talking about how students must accept responsibility for their own achievement. Though fundamental, this is hardly new. The elephant in the room is – achievement… for what? What is the real purpose of an education – a public education – in America 2009?
1) Obama talks about getting a good job as a major goal of going to school: “You want to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer? You want to be a nurse or an architect, a lawyer or a member of our military? You are going to need a good education for every single one of those careers”.
The idea that
From On Education, Obama Blows It, by Gerald Bracey:
I have not the expertise to address the merits of President Obama’s speech to Congress on the issues of the economy. I do claim some expertise on education. He blew it.
He accepted the same garbage that the propagandists, fear mongers such as Lou Gerstner, Bill Gates, Roy Romer, Bob Wise, Craig Barrett and many others—God help us, Arne Duncan?--have been spewing for years.
Obama said, ”Right now, three quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma, and yet just over half of our citizens have that level of education. Scary, huh? Not really. This statistic was a favorite of ex secretary of education of education Margaret Spellings, about whom we can all express a sigh of relief that the operative word is, “ex.”
If you look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics stats on job projections, it is almost true (but not really) that what Obama said is right. But there are two hugely compromising factors that make this statistic much less fearsome that it first appears:
1. The definition of “more than a high school diploma” is a weasel phrase, an incredibly slippery statistic. It does not mean a B. A., an Associates Degree, nor even a year of on-the-job training. The BLS projects that the overwhelming majority of jobs to be created between now and 2016 will require “short term on the job training.” That’s one week to three months.
2. The “fastest-growing occupations” account for very few jobs. For every systems engineer, we need about 15 sales people on the floor at Wal-Mart (and we have three newly minted scientists and engineers for every new job in those fields). The huge job numbers in this country are accounted for by retail sales, janitors, maids, food workers, waiters, truck drivers, home care assistants (low paid folk who come to take care those of us who are getting up in years), and similar low-trained, low-paid occupations. Note that I did not say these people are “low-skilled.” As Barbara Ehrenreich showed after she spent two years working in “low-skilled” jobs, there really is no such thing (see her Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America).
The reality, that every President knows full well, is that computer-driven automation is polarizing the labor market and eliminating most high paying jobs. Hi-tech robotic production is labor-replacing technology that requires a tiny few highly skilled engineering-level jobs on one hand, while “creating” jobs that require little sophistication for those who can actually get them.
Manufacturing as a percent of all employment has dropped from 26% in 1970 to about 10.5% today.
No one who looks seriously at the labor market makes any projections about enough new jobs to put
2) In the next paragraph Obama states, “What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country”. Then in the next paragraph, he says, “You’ll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy.”
Isn’t it a little disingenuous to conflate “this country” with “new companies”? Is it only corporations who can offer us a decent future? They aren’t doing a very good job on handling the present these days.
Furthermore, the lack of jobs, especially quality jobs in the
The Bail-Out of Wall Street is up to $13 trillion dollars to corporations, all paid for by working people (since corporations now pay a small and ever-decreasing share of taxes). For this price, don’t we deserve someone in leadership who can separate the public of “this country” from organizations that increasingly proclaim their right to privatize our public schools?
For $13 trillion, the Bail-Out could have paid off the mortgage of every household in the country. That money would have gone into the banks that went bust for speculating with other peoples’ money, then the public and corporations would have been solvent. But… that didn’t happen. And Wall Street isn’t even required to tell the public what it is doing with our money!
3) Eight paragraphs later, the President states one of the great, unchallenged platitudes, “No one’s written your destiny for you. Here in
How true is this, really?
– Did the millions of families who will be evicted because they were suckered by predatory mortgages write their own destiny?
– How about the thousands of people who will be denied health care by corporations because they had “pre-existing conditions”?
– How about the
The list of people who were worked really hard but were screwed by a system that glorifies it’s right to make a profit off of human misery would fill Wikipedia. This idea that
It is not so strange that a country that was obsessed with slavery for three centuries can think of nothing but working hard. The corollary to the “Your Own Bootstraps” myth is another false idea that is preached across our country everyday: “It’s your fault that you are poor. You didn’t work hard enough. Everyone else can do it, but you chose not too. Now you want a free ride.”
What else can the President be saying? “You make your own future”. So if you are poor that is the future you made. Tell it to the hundreds of thousands of good high school students without papers who are not allowed to go to college unless they can pay cash. Tell it to the thousands of
It’s this corporate vision of what education is that needs to be changed. For over a hundred years, corporations have used their vast power to guarantee that public education should be is tied to a job. Well, since they aren’t providing too many of those these days, maybe we can develop a more transformative vision.
This has been well stated by The Charter for Public Education, developed by the teachers of
Public Education is a Sacred Trust.
As a community we promise to prepare learners for a socially responsible life in a free and democratic society, to participate in a world which each generation will shape and build. We promise a public education system which provides learners with knowledge and wisdom, protects and nurtures their natural joy of learning, encourages them to become persons of character, strength and integrity, infuses them with hope and with spirit, and guides them to resolute and thoughtful action.
Everyone has the right to a free, quality public education.
Each first nation has the right to be recognized and respected by those within the educational institutions located in their traditional territory.
- To recognize that the learner is at the center of public education. To offer learners a broad-based education which includes aesthetic, artistic, cultural, emotional, social, intellectual, academic, physical and vocational development in order that they can find and follow their hopes, dreams and passions.
- To nurture and value critical thinking so that learners are equipped to be reflective and analytical global citizens.
- To respect, encourage and foster the learner's role as a full participant, together with others in the educational community, in developing their own goals, learning activities and curricula.
- To create an environment in which each learner can reach their greatest potential, each learning style is affirmed, and the achievements of each learner are measured and assessed accordingly.
- To provide a safe and respectful environment for life-long learning which celebrates diversity, embraces the physical, spiritual, emotinal and intellectual integrity of each individual, recognizes and acknowledges differences and prevents discrimination in all of its forms.
- Government to be responsible for fully funding all aspects of a quality education.
Thursday, September 3, 2009
In the world of education policy and education reform, recent months have seen the relationship between government and private philanthropy grow entirely too intimate. Many of our major foundations, including some for which I generally have high regard (and occasional gratitude for their help with Fordham's work), have, with the best of intentions, acted as if their foremost mission were to instruct federal and state officials on what to do, tug the strings of public policy in directions that they favor, and spend their own money in ways that compliment (or foreshadow) outlays of government funds. What's more, the flow of active human traffic between foundation and government offices--in both directions--suggests not only that there's much overlap between private and public agendas but also that some of the same folks are working both sides of that street in alternate months……Perhaps in retrospect we'll conclude that the intimacy even did some good and produced some healthy progeny. But there's a problem here, too: the possibility of a Faustian bargain that, in the throes of short-term passion, fails to note the long-term risk.
Deep parallel concerns about the Gates Foundation’s role as a player in world health are expressed in a 2008 report by Global Health Watch (Global Health Watch 2, Chapter DI-3, "The Gates Foundation.")* In other words, US education is not alone.
The chapter about the Gates Foundation “…draws on interviews with global health experts from around the world all of whom requested anonymity or indicated a preference to speak off the record. Several who recounted specific incidents or experiences asked that these not be described so as to protect their identity.” In other words, they are fearful of the consequences if they are publicly honest. Here are some excerpts (italics are mine):
- “But it is vital in today’s world of immense wealth and enduring poverty to question the mainstream portrayal of philanthropy as being entirely benign.”
- “The Gates Foundation is governed by the Gates family. There is no board of trustees; nor any formal parliamentary or legislative scrutiny. There is no answerability to the governments of low-income countries, nor to the WHO. Little more than the court of public opinion exists to hold it accountable.”
- “According to one [expert], ‘They dominate the global health agenda and there is a lack of accountability because they do not have to implement all the checks and balances of other organizations or the bilaterals.’”
- “In addition to the fundamental lack of democratic or public accountability, there was little in the way of accountability to global public health institutions or to other actors in the health field. The fact that the Gates Foundation is [both] a funder and board member of the various new Global Health Initiatives (e.g. the Global Fund; GAVI, Stop TB Partnership; and Roll Back Malaria) means that other global health actors are accountable to the Gates Foundation, but not the other way round.”
- “In reality, there is surprisingly little written about the pattern and effectiveness of grant-making by the Gates Foundation. Limited information is available on the Foundation’s website.”
- “Several interviewees also felt that the way grant proposals are solicited, reviewed and funded is opaque. Many grants appear to be made on the basis of personal contacts and informal networking.”
- “The absence of robust systems of accountability becomes particularly pertinent in light of the Foundation’s extensive influence. As mentioned above, it has power over most of the major global health partnerships, as well as over the WHO, of which it is the third-equal biggest single funder. Many global health research institutions and international health opinion formers are recipients of Gates money. Through this system of patronage, the Foundation has become the dominant actor in setting the frames of reference for international health policy.”
- “Not only is the Foundation a dominant actor within the global health landscape; it is said to be ‘domineering’ and ‘controlling’. According to one interviewee, ‘they monopolise agendas. And it is a vicious circle. The more they spend, the more people look to them for money and the more they dominate.’”
- “The Foundation’s corporate background and its demand for demonstrable returns on its investment appear to have resulted in a bias towards biomedical and technological solutions. In the words of one interviewee: ‘The Gates Foundation is only interested in magic bullets – they came straight out and said this to me.’”
- “The ties between the Foundation and the pharmaceuticals industry, as well as its emphasis on medical technology, have led some health activists to question if the Foundation is converting global health problems into business opportunities. Others worry about the Foundation’s position with regard to intellectual property (IP) rights and the effect this has on the price of essential medicines.”
- “The Foundation has done much, and it will be doing even more as its level of spending sets to increase. But there are problems with what is happening. The Foundation is too dominant. It is unaccountable. It is not transparent. It is dangerously powerful and influential.”
- “The Gates Foundation needs to consider its relationships with other actors. While it should preserve its catalytic, innovative and bold approach to global health, it needs to learn to know when it should follow and not lead.”
Since he's only human, Gates may be having trouble managing his unprecedented wealth in a manner which is wise, and that's with a capital W. It’s much too easy for him to utterly override the input of everyone else, even if his intent is to do something "good." (Just to be nice, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on that.)
Anyone who can drop $4 million to buy whatever he wants (for instance, extensive public-relations, media and lobbying efforts to Learn NY for pushing mayoral control) needs to be closely watched. That's the amount of a really inexpensive sandwich to the average US citizen.
And as I like to remind readers (just so they can get an inkling of this unfathomable wealth), to Gates that $4 million which helped pay for propaganda and a fake grassroots movement (commonly referred to as "astroturf") had the relative value of $5 to someone with a net worth of $50,000 (the pre-recession US average). For Gates, such a paltry amount can buy as much influence as 800,000 average people could buy if they pooled all their money together. And that number of Americans is nearly as many people as the number that makes up the population of San Francisco, CA (12th largest US city at 808,976) or Jacksonville, FL (807,815 at 13th).
* Thanks to reader Laura for this link.