Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Charters want accountability? That's a new concept

The charter school industry and its supporters earnestly assure the public these days that they want problem charter schools held accountable.

If that’s true, it’s good news. It’s also a drastic about-face for the charter school industry, which has long fought efforts to hold charter schools accountable. An article on charter schools in the May 25 New York Times pointed out the same thing. The charter industry has been waging successful court battles against efforts to hold charter schools accountable.

“…[C]harter schools have at times resisted tougher monitoring,” the Times wrote. “In 2007, a group of charter schools and advocates sued the [New York state] comptroller's office, challenging its right to audit the finances and academic performance of such schools. Critics said the comptroller's office had no expertise to assess academics. “Last year, the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, ruled that charter schools were in effect independent contractors and beyond the comptroller's reach.”

Not that I’m unsympathetic to those who change their minds. After all, I’m a big admirer of Diane Ravitch’s. She’s the former Bush administration education official and former booster of high-stakes-testing/choice/privatization education policies who announced her change of mind and heart in her book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.” Ravitch, who publicly described her soul-searching, now opposes the ideas she once championed, saying that in real life they have been shown to be not just ineffective but harmful to schools, children and public education.

It’s weird that (unlike Ravitch) the entire charter industry just changed its tune without missing a beat, though. There was no explanation and no discussion of the new philosophy or of renouncing the old philosophy. When did that new philosophy take effect?

Here in San Francisco a few years ago, our Board of Education (BOE) got beaten up by the charter world twice in a short period for trying to hold problem charter schools accountable. In one of those cases, the local, national and even international media eagerly, compliantly and unquestioningly leaped on the charter movement’s crusade, ganging up to blast the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) for its effort to hold controversial, for-profit Edison Schools Inc. accountable back in 2001. (More on that below.)

Then, in 2003, SFUSD had to deal with its own home-grown charter problem, a high school called Urban Pioneer that specialized in wilderness experience for disaffected students. In March 2003, two UP students died by falling into a ravine at night on an unsupervised wilderness outing.

The ensuing scrutiny revealed that UP was also in financial chaos — “the budget allowed for just $2 per student per month and no janitors, testing or staff development,” according to the Chronicle. And UP was committing academic fraud, “graduating” students with far fewer than the required credits. The school’s test scores were rock bottom. Reportedly, the president of the school’s board of directors, a lawyer, had been intimidating would-be whistleblowers within the school into silence by threatening to sue them.

Yet when the SFUSD BOE began investigating the school, the charter lobby fought back hard, rousing the UP community and supporters to battle to keep the school open. Peter Thorp, best known here in San Francisco as founding principal of Gateway High School, our city’s most successful charter, spoke on behalf of the California Network of Educational Charters (now the California Charter Schools Association) against closing Urban Pioneer. I wasn’t present, but a friend who attended one of the public meetings tells me that the grieving parents of the deceased students had come to the meeting intending to speak, but were intimidated by the belligerent crowd and sat silently.

Meanwhile, despite its financial problems, UP somehow managed to scrape together the wherewithal to hire a high-priced damage-control PR specialist, David Hyams of San Francisco’s Solem & Associates. (Hyams had recently changed careers after many years as an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle.) The Chronicle quoted Hyams as likening SFUSD to the Taliban and its investigation to a “witch hunt.”

Urban Pioneer was ultimately shut down, though you can still find people in the community to this day who somehow managed to miss the whole story and who view it as an outrage that SFUSD shut down a “successful” charter school. I haven’t pinned down the source of that version of the story, though it’s easy to guess.

The UP controversy roiled our school district at a time when it had been recently battered by its bloody encounter with Edison Schools, the then-high-flying media darling that was being hailed as the solution for public education.

Edison was running one charter school in our district, Edison Charter Academy (ECA) at 22nd and Dolores on the border between San Francisco's Mission District and Noe Valley. Our wild and woolly superintendent of the ’90s, Bill Rojas, had brought Edison in, supported by a rubber-stamp Board of Ed majority.

Edison-friendly Rojas left in ’99 to run the Dallas school district (which later fired him), and by 2001, the BOE was no longer dominated by unquestioning Edison and Rojas supporters. The district was encountering the same problems with Edison that many other Edison client districts were reporting, including significantly higher costs than projected, low performance and “counseling out” of challenging students who then landed in district schools. Edison made burdensome demands on districts (one SFUSD central office bureaucrat who worked on contracts said she spent nearly half her time over several months just working with ECA), while adding insult to injury by issuing press releases touting itself as superior to the clients who had hired it.

Edison was founded and run by flamboyant entrepreneur Christopher Whittle, a non-educator who previously owned Esquire magazine. Whittle had obviously made some good high-level contacts in media, and when the SFUSD BOE started asking tough questions about ECA, he mobilized those contacts. Editorials criticizing SFUSD and praising Edison popped up all over, in places like the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the London-based Economist and even random outlets like a Virginia newspaper that headlined its editorial “Dim Bulbs” (referring to the SFUSD BOE). The Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News editorialized strongly in favor of Edison. The Chronicle editorial page worked itself into such a state of outrage at our BOE that one headline on an editorial about SFUSD used the word “goosestepping” (that particular editorial was not about Edison, but the Edison issue was the spark igniting a general frenzy of hostility at the Chron at that time).

News coverage, including a Page 1 story in the New York Times, portrayed ECA as a huge success and hinted at San Francisco’s leftist “land of fruits and nuts” image to claim that our BOE was opposing successful Edison for entirely “ideological” reasons. The press “forgot” to do a key piece of the research, which should have been to find out what was going on in other Edison client districts around the nation. (The insider term for that type of "forgetful" journalism is “check it and lose it.”)

The New York Times story addressed that issue by using a quote from Whittle: “None of the 44 other cities where we manage schools has ever done anything like this.” Reporter Edward Wyatt used the quote without checking it, challenging it or further commenting, letting it stand as a statement of fact.

But actually, Whittle was lying. Edison had already been kicked out by the Sherman, Texas, school district. Other clients at that time were looking into severing their Edison contracts too — among them Macon, Ga.; Lansing and Flint, Mich.; Goldsboro, N.C.; and Wichita, Kans., none of them generally vulnerable to “land of fruits and nuts” caricatures.

The bashing wasn’t limited to public school critics or mainstream media. Commentator Peter Schrag, normally a public school supporter, wrote a long piece for the leftist Nation magazine telling the same (inaccurate) story. Joan Walsh, now editor of Salon and a media star herself — and at the time an SFUSD parent, though not at ECA — did the same in a long Salon article. (To Walsh’s credit, she is one of the very few journalists who later corrected factual errors fed to her by Edison spokespeople — perhaps the only one.) When one Edison press release described ECA as “a successful school in a failing district,” variations on that line appeared in various media, including Schrag’s Nation article.

For the record, ECA’s achievement at the time (based on California’s Academic Performance Index compilation of test scores) ranked it close to the bottom among SFUSD schools for 1999-2000, the data available at the beginning of the media frenzy. And when the scores from spring 2001 testing were released, ECA’s were dead last in the district.

I helped other advocates research information about Edison, and we used the less-nimble technology of that time to create an e-mail press release list and a website, Parents Advocating School Accountability. At one point I wrote up an account of the situation to share with friends who weren’t versed in it, partly because if they came across my name (I was quoted in the Page 1 New York Times article), I wanted them to have heard my version first. A friend who was a Chronicle copy editor was amazed to learn from me that ECA wasn’t the highest-scoring school in the district. Though the Chronicle’s news coverage had mentioned that ECA’s actual test scores were low, the whole tone of the crusade had given her that impression — even though she was actually copy editing some of the coverage.

Meanwhile, Edison was fighting SFUSD in court too, and California charter PR man Gary Larson was mobilizing ECA parents to storm school board meetings in matching T-shirts, chanting “My child, my choice!”

Why did Edison mobilize against SFUSD — and mobilize the media on its behalf — while keeping a low profile about the numerous other client districts that had the same problems with Edison and were doing the same thing? At the time, Edison was making two ambitious bids in major districts. In New York City, it was trying to win five schools and a solid toehold. In Philadelphia, it was attempting to take over the entire district. My guess is that the thinking was that all this news coverage with a strong tone of disapproval aimed at one “land of fruits and nuts” district would divert everyone from checking into how Edison was doing with its various client districts. The strategy seemed to work.

What this all amounted to was a mass attack on SFUSD for attempting to hold Edison accountable for its commitments to its client school district (and its students). The fact that the media leaped gleefully into the fray provides a good view of the risks of trying to hold a charter operator accountable.

In the end, the outcome in San Francisco was a compromise. Edison and SFUSD severed their contract and the charter-promoting California state Board of Education took over chartering the school (the degree of oversight and accountability now is utterly unknown to the public). ECA is quietly operating in the same location, as a rent-paying tenant in an SFUSD facility. It’s an attractive facility in a great location, too, and a lot of young parents in trendy, family-friendly Noe Valley would like to get it back.

Edison lost its bid for the New York schools and ended up with just a couple dozen in Philadelphia. By now, Edison Schools Inc. has lost 29 of its client districts at last known count — and I am definitely not keeping up, so I’m sure there are many more. Here’s an account of Edison Schools’ situation from the PASA website.

It’s easy to see why anyone who has followed the history of charter schools would be surprised to hear from charter advocates that they now believe in accountability for problem charter schools. We shall see.


Friday, May 21, 2010

¡Alto Arizona!

¡Alto Arizona!


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Speaking truth to racist 'ed-reformer' Tom Horne

"Problem posing education does not and cannot serve the interests of the oppressor" — Paulo Freire

[Click if you can't view the video]

Texas Textbooks, Steve Poizner, and Gloria Romero. Could the 'Education Reformers' get any worse? Sadly, yes. Now, ed reformer and racist Arizona State Superindent of Public Instruction Tom Horne has banned ethnic studies with AB 2281 and is trying to ban Paulo Freire!

He joins the rest of his ilk in the Ed-Reform orbit...

Gubernatorial candidate and California Charter School Association (CCSA) founder Steve Poizner threatening to send the National Guard to the California border. Virginia's Governor creating "Celebrate Chattel Slavery Month." LAPU/Parent Revolution's Ben Austin getting appointed to the California Board of Education by fellow Ayn Rand/Milton Freidman acolyte Arnold Schwarzenegger. Textbooks in Texas now eschewing Thurgood Marshall and Cesar Chavez in favor of racist reactionaries like Newt Gingrich. American Indian Public Charter School and Green Dot Public [sic] Schools requiring "pledges" to capitalism. Teabaggers allowed to display open racism and homophobia towards members of Congress. DFER Charter-Voucher school cheerleader and hedge-fund manager Whitney Tilson being able to say things like "we need a lot more well-off, well-educated white folks" in public forums. Far right Democrats like Yolie Flores Aguilar, Inc. freely using the dubious segregationist phrase "school choice" from the Jim Crow era, while trying to eliminate Bilingual Education at LAUSD.


Friday, May 14, 2010

"[T]here is nothing seriously wrong with American education. The problem is poverty." -- Professor Stephen Krashen

Defend Public Schools from Corporate Charter-Voucher CharlatansSent to the NY Times, May 10, 2010

In his speech at Hampton University ("Obama asks graduates to close education gap," May 9), President Obama remarked that "...students in well-off areas are outperforming students in poorer rural or urban communities, no matter what skin color. Globally, it's not even close. In 8th grade science and math, for example, American students are ranked about 10th overall compared to top-performing countries."

The president is correct: Students in those well-off areas, who attend well-funded schools, do very well. They don't rank 10th overall world-wide: They score at the top on international tests of science and math, while American children in "poorer rural or urban communities" score below the international average. Our overall performance is unimpressive because such a high percentage of children in the US live in poverty, among the highest of all industrialized countries (about 22.5%, compared to Sweden's 2.5%).

This means that there is nothing seriously wrong with American education. The problem is poverty.

Stephen Krashen

Professor Emeritus

University of Southern California


WNBA May Be Upon Biggest Season Yet

[Click if you can't view the video]

Dave Zirin is a renowned sports writer who is unafraid to speak truth to power, and we are both members of the same political organization. It's really encouraging to hear him talking up the WNBA and women's basketball. Yoon and I are Sparks season ticket holders and avid Title IX supporters. We invite everyone to check out at least one WNBA game in person this year.

Another thing. Dave Zirin has been on the leading edge of calling out the incredible racism coming from Arizona legislators and their supporters. There is a dialectical relation between Dave writing about courageous athletes willing to speak on behalf of social justice, and more athletes being willing to do so. I don't think the TNT's Inside the NBA analysits Kenny Smith, Chris Webber, and Charles Barkley take the principled stand against SB 1070 they took on T.V. recently in the absense of the space Dave Zirin has created with and for athletes to speak out.

Don't forget to Protest/Boycott the Arizona Diamondbacks in Los Angeles!

Here's my parting thoughts on Arizona's most recent racist law: "HB 2281 ensures the only ethnic studies you'll ever receive are Rich White Male Studies!" (I better be careful, the so-called LAPU/Parent Revolution might actually think that's a good idea)


Sunday, May 09, 2010

How can we reverse the attacks on bilingual education?

How can we reverse the attacks on bilingual education?Reading circle/happy hour for progressive and activist teachers

Friday, May 14, 2010 4:30pm
Señor Fish Restaurant
422 E 1st St, Los Angeles, CA 90012
(Corner of 1st & Alameda in Little Tokyo/Downtown)

Reading: Jeff Bale, "The fight for bilingual education,"
in International Socialist Review, Jan-Feb 2010
(other article suggestions welcome)

From Prop 227 to the federal "No Child Left Behind" law to the dismantling of dual language and "waiver-to-basic" classes across LAUSD, bilingual education has been the target of a concerted political attack for many years now. It's even to the point where the Arizona Department of Education is ordering teachers who speak English "with an accent" removed from positions teaching students who are learning English. This would rip thousands of bilingual teachers out of their classrooms.

All this is despite decades of solid, peer-reviewed educational research that shows that emergent bilingual students benefit dramatically in numerous ways from receiving instruction in their home language while they learn a second language.

Sponsored by the LA branch of the International Socialist Organization.
For more information, or (323) 273-5993


Open Letter to UOPX's Dr. Wilen-Daugenti regarding her Q&A with Steve Barr

"It's like me saying, 'Duffy's a pig fucker.' Have I seen him fuck a pig? Do I have photos?" — Steve Barr (Founder and (former) Chairman, Green Dot)

Tracey Wilen-Daugenti, PhD:

While I'm sure many in the DFER/DLC orbit will enjoy your corporate press release [1] in the guise of an interview, you might do well looking at Mr. Barr's project with a little more scrutiny.

First off, you might want to ask Barr about the Green Dot Board's arbitrary decision to shutter Ánimo Justice Charter HS because its ELL and Special Education students were effecting Green Dot's "bottom line." Of course, it's this type of capricious choice to deliberately avoid teaching certain segments of the population that allows businessman Barr to gush about "charter schools are able to take less money and do more with it."

Here are some places where you can read about the corporate CMOs cruel decision to toss their own students and community to the side. Is this what Barr means by treating parents like "clients?" 

Taking on a charter school closing

South Central protests school closures

Two South LA High Schools Combine Efforts As They Fight To Save Themselves

Second, you might want to look at Part V-A of Green Dot Public Schools' 990 Forms to discover some of Mr. Barr's additional motivations for what they term "education reform."

Finally, you might want to investigate the now legendary remediation rates resulting from Green Dot's lauded college placement. A modicum of research on the CSU databases will turn up some of the most abysmal proficiency rates around. Rates so bad — they make LAUSD look positively stellar in comparison.

While all Green Dot's campuses exhibit this "phenomenon," let's look at Animo Venice Charter High School. Of the Green Dot students admitted to the CSU system in 2008 67% WERE NOT PROFICIENT IN MATHEMATICS. This is compared to just 49% of the much maligned LAUSD students. Moreover, only 33% of the children graduating Green Dot were proficient, while children attending public schools comprised a much more respectable 51%.

Social justice activists have done some research and found that for the CSU, all a student has to do is average a C in high school for admittance. This is how Green Dot is able to boast about amazing college placement rates, while posting miserable SAT and proficiency. This is what LAUSD Vice President Yolie Flores terms a "high performing charter."

Of course this is the same type of smoke and mirrors that the celebrated Diane Ravitch exposes in her her watershed new book "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education."

All in all, Green Dot's obsession for teaching to the test over a rounded curriculum also speaks volumes to their real "tenets" which comprise sacrificing good pedagogy in the name of increasing market share.

A much more balanced assessment of Mr. Barr and his organization appears here in Susan Ohanian's work: The Instigator: New Yorker Profile of Charter School Chief Steve Barr is Propaganda, not Reporting

With a sincere hope that the real truth about CMO/EMOs will begin to enlighten public discourse.

Robert D. Skeels



Thursday, May 06, 2010

Message to Obama, Congress: Listen to parents

Parents Across America: Join us in sending a message to President Obama and the Congress by signing on here; also please join our Facebook page and leave a comment.

On May 5, 18 parent activists from across the nation sent a letter to Obama and the Congress, opposing his administration's wrong-headed, pro-privatization version of education reform, and calling for new priorities for our public schools, including more parent involvement and smaller classes.

As we wrote:

So far, the parent voice has been missing from the debate over education and is entirely absent from the top-down and often draconian proposals being put forward by the administration. We strongly believe that the Blueprint’s proposals would undermine rather than strengthen our public school system, particularly in the urban districts whose parents we represent.

Read the full letter here, and the press release here. We also point out that Blueprint’s proposals represent large-scale experiments on our kids, and yet lack informed parental consent -- which would never be allowed in the field of medicine.

Incredibly, the only mention of the word "parents" in Duncan's entire "Blueprint" for the reauthorization of ESEA is that parents of American Indian children should have input as to the curriculum in their schools. No wonder that the US Department of Education's approval rating has dropped more sharply than any other government agency, according to the Pew Research Center.

The letter points out that "Education is a public trust and the very foundation of our democracy. We urge you to be wary of the influence of venture philanthropy on our public education system. We are well aware that powerful foundations -- such as those of Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton family, and others – are shaping many of our federal and local education policies with dollars rather than evidence-based solutions."

We conclude our message to Congress this way: “You hold a great responsibility in your hands this year in reauthorizing the ESEA. ....We urge you to insist that the next version of the ESEA formally incorporates the views of public school parents as well. As highly knowledgeable primary stakeholders, we must be permitted to have a seat at the decision-making table."

For an article about our letter, check out Gotham Schools.