Education “Research” So Bad it Deserves an Award

The National Education Policy Center NEPC has released it’s 2015 award for the worst Educational “Research” – otherwise known as the “Bunkum Award”.   We look forward to this award every year because they do a fairly comprehensive job of debunking biased research that privileges a political purpose rather than the generation of new knowledge.

According to NEPC:

This year’s winner is the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, for Separating Fact from Fiction: What You Need to Know about Charter Schools. The National Alliance (NAPCS) describes itself as “the leading national nonprofit organization committed to advancing the charter school movement.” Separating Fact from Fiction is a fetching, sleek publication adorned with 15 charming photos of smiling children keeping watch over 21 easy-to-digest, alleged “myths” followed by responses that the report generously describes as “facts.” Yet Separating Fact from Fiction might more honestly be titled:

Playing 21 with a Stacked Deck
or
Blackjacked! 21 Attempts to Club Sound Policy.

 

 

Charter school “research” has become very popular lately as private groups seek to cash in on public money in order to create schools that are “superior” to public options.  You can see NEPC’s YouTube Presentation of the Award below and be sure to check out the full story HERE.

“Profiting from Those Least Able to Resist”: On the “Promise” of Charter Schools

Day five of CIED 694V: Progressive Education Policy welcomed a guest lecturer from Louisiana State University to talk about charter schools, especially the charterization of the city of New Orleans and surrounding areas. Margaret-Mary Sulentic Dowell is associate professor of Literacy and Urban Education at LSU and coordinates the elementary grades teacher education programs. Beyond living through Hurricane Katrina in the area and bearing witness to what happened in New Orleans–the city is now 100% populated by charter schools–she recently co-edited a special issue of the journal Equity & Excellence in Education on “The Promises of Charter Schools.” The issue was built around a single question: “How is the promise of charter schooling, as a vehicle for social justice in public education, playing out? (Dowell & Bickmore)”

I’ve questioned the motives of charter schools for a host of reasons, including the concept that they are leading to increased segregation of our public school system and the notion that students should not, in any situation, be turned into a profit scheme. To me, charters are a smoke and mirrors attack on public education marauding around as “choices” for parents who might be disenfranchised with their local public school. When I invited Dr. Dowell to speak to our Progressive Education Policy course, I thought I might finally get some nuance to my stance.

Dr. Margaret-Mary Sulentic Dowell provided a guest lecture at the University of Arkansas
Dr. Margaret-Mary Sulentic Dowell provided a guest lecture at the University of Arkansas

In preparation for class and at the invitation of our guest, we read the introduction to the themed issue as well as a piece by Nancy Picard, a Louisiana attorney who penned Louisiana’s Great Education Giveaway, a lengthy blog post that captures the genesis and repercussions of the New Orleans takeover. Ms. Picard doesn’t hedge language in her opening paragraph:

Instead, [charters] create a separate and wholly unequal educational system masquerading as choice, which serves to destabilize and discredit public schools in the name of improvement and to make state funds accessible to a wide range of individuals and corporations with little or no oversight.

As Picard point by point explained what happened in New Orleans, the way the laws were changed without anyone in the city following the hurricane, the way African American teachers were fired when their school system was dissolved, the way the Recovery School District (RSD) has now spread across the state, I grew ill. Those interested in privatizing education didn’t miss a beat in attempting to take advantage of the crisis Hurricane Katrina left in its’ wake. If everyone in education were to read Ms. Picard’s post, the world might, in fact, be a better place.

She closed with damning words for her state:

Tossing around public school funds like so many Mardi Gras beads is irresponsible, short-sighted, and an evasion of our responsibility to educate all citizens.

That last phrase really stuck with me. Isn’t this what it’s all about, the evasion of responsibility to all citizens? Do we–Americans–really want equality in our schools or our country and if we do, why do our actions not support such when our actions are to sidestep and shirk our responsibility of educating all citizens in favor of engineering and then spending a windfall of cash on unproven charter schools?

Dowell was able to put names and faces to what exactly has happened in the area. As someone who has worked in teacher preparation and as a school superintendent and teacher, some of her research has taken her to these New Orleans charter schools. She related that some schools are “Mom and Pop” charters that operate loosely (she offered the example of a New Orleans East charter which ran out of money to bus kids in March of last year before closing) and others are good schools that reflect the part of the city from which they originated (she mentioned Homer Plessy and Morris Jeff as two examples of great schools). It sounded like the quality of the schools was–at least to some extent–dependent on the socioeconomics of the students from which each schools drew.

What’s happened in New Orleans represents one of the elements to education deform–destabilization, an element that Professor Dowell spoke of during her visit to class. The RSD took out all of the teachers with experience teaching in the area–not to mention deep roots in the community–in favor of quick fixes like Teach for America and other temp workers. Charter schools sweep into an area like New Orleans and provide temporary homes for students (and the all important $$$ that accompany them) and many charters–if the national trend holds–will go out of business, leaving students and parents in the lurch, leaving a path of destabilization one might liken to the destructive path of a hurricane.

Class also spent some time discussing issues related to the special themed issue of Equity & Excellence in Education that Dowell and her colleague Dana Bickmore, co-edited. The pair asked important and enduring questions, ones I think the country writ large needs to consider before opening one more charter school.

“But we wonder, how have charter schools empowered students, teachers, and families/parents, particularly in schools that are comprised of children of color and children from low socioeconomic backgrounds?”

Champions of charter schools are quick to point out that some students are achieving in those schools whereas their achievement was less certain in their former public schools. This achievement issue is a tricky one to navigate because how well students do is important to everyone. But because charters are presently conceived as being in competition with public schools and adhere to a different set of rules than public schools, the achievement issue is murky at best. Of course the biggest factor in this conversation is, again, the amount of income present in the home (you might be detecting a pattern here). As Kevin Welner eloquently points out in “The Dirty Dozen: How Charter Schools Influence Student Enrollment,” when education as competition is a game to be played and there’s hardly a limit to ways of gaming the system.

Part and parcel to that game, of course, is the high stakes standardized testing regime, about which Dowell and Bickmore offered this astute analysis:

We contend that one score as an evaluation tool denies social justice. Other outcomes might be appropriate for children who will live their entire lives in the twenty-first century. These outputs might include democratic citizenship and social responsibility, as well as critical self-reflection around unequal socially constructed relationships and enhanced capabilities of students, teachers, and local communities to address marginalization through race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and ability.

Let me be clear, Professor Dowell doesn’t see charters schools through a single lens. She wants the best possible learning situations for all students and that is something laudable and about which most of us can agree. When charters become, as I’ll argue they have in New Orleans, a source of profit for outside interests, a problem exists that needs to be addressed.

While touted as promising change for the betterment of children and public education in the U.S., charter schools as an educational reform strategy appear to be more aligned with profiting from those least able to resist. We posit that the shift in what constituted a charter school, coupled with the increase in standardized testing and the commodification and privatization of education, limit the promise of charter schools as social justice-inspired entities.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan might have uttered his most offensive words ever in 2010, calling Hurricane Katrina “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.”

If one’s goals are to risk the education of young people (despite overwhelming reasons to question charters), to change laws to make it easier to privatize a public education system, and to destabilize a region in the wake of a crisis, Arne and many others are “profiting from those least able to resist” (Dowell & Bickmore, 2015).

Who will stand up for them?

A Month of Opting Out of Standardized Tests: Day 15

This is the 15th of 20 posts I will be writing during the PARCC testing window of March 9 – April 10.  If you’re interested in the growing master list of reasons we opted out of standardized tests in 2015, you can find it here.

Yesterday I wrote about how testing companies are generating billions of dollars in revenues off the backs of test-taking children and American taxpayers.  That leads me to the next logical topic when a lot of money is involved – corruption.

Reason #15:  Corrupting Public Education

In 1976 Social Psychologist Donald Campbell wrote a paper that introduced the world to Campbell’s Law.

“The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

Campbell’s law is pretty simple.  The more we rely on one social indicator to make our decisions regarding policy, the more that one social indicator is apt to corruption_347102_7be distorted and corrupted.   In the case of standardized tests, that social indicator is the “test score” and the social process is “education”.  And now that we’ve placed a ridiculous level of emphasis on this social indicator, it is no surprise that we also see a number of different issues with corruption.

Take for example the scandals that happened in, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, and the one that should have happened in Washington D.C. but didn’t because Michelle Rhee has some kind of kung fu mojo with a lot of money behind her.   In some of these cases, the cheating was committed by teachers or administrators hoping to save their jobs or get past the testing regime so that they could focus on what is actually good for students.

As an educator I can’t condone cheating of this nature, but I understand how it can be rationalized.  If teachers view standardized tests as an unreliable measure of their effectiveness (they are) and view the hoopla surrounding standardized tests as bad for children (it is), then cheating in order to protect one’s livelihood from wrongful termination or cheating so that one can actually provide students with what they really need almost makes sense.  Of course, I’m sure many of these teachers are just dishonest.  In the case of Washington D.C., Michelle Rhee offered bonuses to teachers if their students scored higher on tests.  There’s no better motive for corruption than the almighty dollar.

This leads us to another form of corruption in public education – the corruption that inevitably occurs when “public” is taken “private”.  The best example (because it really is only the first to clearly emerge but there will certainly be more) is the privatization of charter schools.  My friend and colleague Chris Goering has written about charter schools on EduSanity before.  The original intent of the charter school has been perverted since it’s inception to fit the agenda of education reformers.  Once laboratories of experimentation, many charter schools are now factories for test scores, and in this sense test scores are very much like profits earned by a business.  They are the only thing that matters.

And a seriously disturbing number of charter schools have had problems with corruption.  A Google search for “charter school corruption” returns 3,790 results.    Many of these charter schools are part of privately owned networks.  These companies open charter schools, receive taxpayer monies to educate students, and in some cases they steal that money.  Take for example Illinois where a recent report found that:

To date, $13.1 million in fraud by charter school officials has been uncovered in Illinois. Because of the lack of transparency and necessary oversight, total fraud is estimated at $27.7 million in 2014 alone.

It’s not just Illinois.  There are other examples in Arizona, North Carolina, Ohio, Michigan, Louisiana… and you get the point.  Even the FBI has gotten involved with raids on a charter network to look for evidence of corruption.  Heck, there’s even a blog dedicated to just compiling these scandals in one place! How is this all possible?  Test scores.  Charters continue to expand because politicians and the American public generally believe that they are better than public schools at raising student achievement – even though they’re not.  And private charter schools are all the rage because we love deregulation and the free market!  Well guess what comes riding in on the coattails of deregulation and privatization?  Corruption.  You asked for it.  You got it.

 

Will the Left Wake Up to Charter Realities?

The left in Washington is indistinguishable from the right on charter schools, a rare point of agreement in times marked by contentious discord. In 2009, Race to the Top specifically targeted expansion of charter schools and in May, President Obama offered the following words in his proclamation of national charter school week.

“I commend our Nation’s charter schools, teachers, and administrators, and I call on States and communities to support high quality public schools, including charter schools and the students they serve.”

Mr. President, though I support students, teachers, and leaders of charter schools through my work at the University of Arkansas, I won’t support charters and respectfully disagree with the your calls for increases for three central reasons:

  1. Competition. While Albert Shanker’s original vision for charter schools was for innovation, labs where teachers could experiment with new ideas and then, if demonstrated successful, return to the host public schools with those ideas, today’s charters are all about winning and losing. Sorry but when kids are involved, I can’t accept a system setup for some to lose. I’ve never met a single child who deserves to lose or to attend a losing school.
  2. Privatization. I believe that public education should now and forever remain public and that attempts by private industry to engage in the education conversation are duplicitous at best. When larger cities take over failing schools, shutter them, and then usher in companies to re-open charters in those spaces, I don’t believe the greater good of our country or those individual cities rests at the heart of this issue. Several states are experimenting with the same notion: declare something failing, sweep in for a takeover, and then sell it to the highest bidder.
  3. Segregation. My strongest negative reaction to charter schools is the way in which they are serving to provide choices to people. Choice in schooling creates situations where charters are segregating our schools by race and class. With schools more segregated now than before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, and evidence that charters are exacerbating the issue, it seems that our country is taking steps in the exact wrong direction when people vote with their feet.

So how did we get here?

As educational historian Diane Ravitch detailed in her 2010 book, at least some of the roots of these issues began under President Ronald Reagan’s 3C’s initiative for content, character, and choice.

Choice photo

An Inconvenient Truth pronounced Davis Guggenheim a hero of liberals, making his Waiting for Superman, as Ravitch explained, “the most important public-relations coup that the critics of public education have made so far.” Or, as Hermansen-Webb concludes in her 2014 rhetorical analysis of the film, “The growing enthusiasm about charter schools from the political left stems, in part, from arguments for market-based reform that are delivered to liberal audiences through popular culture (p. 533).

It was comments on an article about President Bill Clinton published at Huffington Post in September that gave me some hope that the liberals who were seduced by Waiting for Superman, victims of the blistering hot school choice narrative, were waking up to at least some issues with charter schools.

I’ve selected the following quotes from the comment section because they offer criticism of the charter narrative. Of course these comments are not a scientific reflection of anything.  

“The privatization of public institutions will ALWAYS lead
to disaster.”

“The profit motive can’t be trusted.”

“Funny, we’ve been saying that for years but no one will listen until a famous politician says it? They are motivated by profit, not results.”

“Charter schools are veiled discrimination against the disabled and disadvantaged.”

“And don’t forget to add the racially different to your list! Whether some are passed over for race or the difficulty of getting to the chosen school several miles and neighborhoods away. (Could therefore be a dangerous journey.)”

“Everybody needs to quit calling charter schools “public schools”. They leach public money just like the private prison industry. But we do not call private prisons, ‘public prisons.'”

“Education policy is being determined by people who know little to nothing about education, so the failure of charter schools shouldn’t come as a surprise. These schools are being run by folks who care a lot about making money, and not so much about educating children. And just like with the big banks: deregulation = disaster.”

I responded first the day the Clinton article posted, primarily citing this piece from May. While my comment and a few of the others focused on the segregation issue, commenters were more concerned with the privatization aspect that charters represent. While I deplore that as an unforgivable reality too, the real issue for me and others is the idea of segregation based on race and class.

“Drive to Anywhere, Southern State, USA and look around for the private school and public school. It’s Jim Crow all over again with near complete segregation by race, something a colleague formally linked to expanding charter schools, not only in terms of race but also ethnicity and class. Is this the country we want? […] stacked measurements and positive press don’t obscure the deeper realities.”

Is this the country any of us want?

Iris C. Rotberg’s research published in Phi Delta Kappan in 2014 on the issue offers three specific findings:

“There is a strong link between school choice programs and an increase in student segregation by race, ethnicity, and income. 

The risk of segregation is a direct reflection of the design of the school choice program. 

Even beyond race, ethnicity, and income, school choice programs result in increased segregation for special education and language-minority students, as well as in increased segregation of students based on religion and culture.” 

While some–including President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan–want charter school proliferation, the dangers of doing so, of giving choice to some, seem to far outweigh any benefits.

As Rotberg concludes:

“Proponents of charter schools believe they’re giving low-income and minority students opportunities they otherwise would not have had. That belief is true in some cases; all charter schools do not result in segregation. But far too many do, and the trend is unfavorable.”

Dr. Paul Thomas articulates the big ideas well in a post written in honor, ahem, of National School Choice Week:

“Choice in education is an ideological lie driven by an idealized faith that ignores the negative consequences of choice: some parents choose for their children to drop out of school, some parents choose to smoke with their children in the car, some parents choose to place their children in schools based on racist and classist beliefs.”

Isn’t choice that leads to segregation unconscionable?

****

Author’s note: Thank you Jen, Brandon, John, and Paul for reading and responding to earlier drafts.