Sunday, February 1, 2015

Teachers Fired for Teaching Black History

How many hard lessons in charter operation can we have? As many as there are incompetent charter operators in the field.

Here's the meat of the story from DC's ABC affiliate:

Yes, so bizarre it's hard to believe, the principal at the middle school operated on the campus of one of America's historic African-American universities reportedly dropped the hammer on teachers who insisted on teaching African-American history.

The school was launched in 2005 as an attempt at innovation, and seemed to do good work for a while. More recently things have been rough at the school. Here's an anonymous review of the school from the Great Schools website:

I am a current student at Howard University Middle School (MS)2 and am happy this is my final year. The school has changed from my first year here. My 6th grade year was fun and I enjoyed it. 7th grade is when things started going downhill. We got a new principal and she left after about a month on the job. We went the rest of the year without a principal. This year we have a new principal and I don't think she knows what she's doing. So far this year we've lost at least 8 teachers and they were the ones that cared the most. They haven't filled the spots and it doesn't look like they are trying to. Now we have lost our 3 favorite teachers which makes 11 teachers gone. This has been a terrible year and once again, am glad that I am leaving. If you are a parent interested in sending your child here, I hope you find this helpful.

Focus of the story and reactions to it has been on the firing of the teachers, and it's hard to express just how totally bad and wrong and stupid it was to have police escort them out of the building in front of their students, as if they had just been arrested for some crime.

Principal Angelicque Blackmon's LinkdIn account is... well, confusing. She lists the principalship of Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science as a "previous" job and lists her current employment as the President and CEO of Innovative Learning Concepts, LLC. ILC is a "full service premier Georgia STEM education coaching, consulting, and tutorial." According to the profile, she lives in Georgia. Previous work experience includes a stint with the National Science Foundation and has done some work as a research chemist with Dow and the US Geological survey. After her science training, she also completed some post-grad work in cultural anthropology.

An essay that she posted on LinkedIn last summer includes this:

Therefore, we leave people who do not truly understand diversity with the perception that although they have the same skin tone as another in the room that they, in some way, are absolved from being diverse. This is not at all true. We should discontinue the practice of pretending that when people have the same skin color that they have so much more in common with that person than with someone of a different hue. This has never been the case and I am befuddled in trying to understand why in our 21 century context we still perpetuate such myths.

Nothing in her profile suggests that she has the background or experience to handle a leadership role at a middle school, and the exodus of teachers from the school doesn't speak well of her leadership skills. What strikes me most about the firing of the three social studies teachers is that they had already quit! If her goal was simply to stop them form teaching African-American studies in her school, she had already won. To fire them in such a public and demeaning manner, with no regard or concern for the students, suggests a grown-up tantrum.

And so the story leads to parents standing on the sidewalk outside the school, because what else can they do? If this were a public school, board members would be fielding a ton of phone calls and parents would be pressuring them to do something, and they would be facing the fallout. But because this is a charter, there's nobody to call, nobody to pressure, nobody to demand answers from. Instead, the charter will likely continue its apparent downward spiral, wasting critical years of the students and creating extra worry and mess for the parents. Would things be any better in the mess that is DC public schools? I don't know; it's a system with many, many problems. But this mess certainly doesn't deliver on a promise for a school that is responsive, sensitive, and permanent.

Charter Sales

There's a great Steve Jobs clip I've used before. In it, Jobs offers his explanation of how the bean counters end up in charge of a company.

The basic principle is simple. Initially, a business prospers based on its ability to make stuff or provide a service, and the better they do stuff, the more money they make. And for a while, doing stuff better pays the bills and makes the profits.

But eventually doing the stuff doesn't increase the revenue stream, because you've pretty well hit all of the market you can hit. The product has attracted all the money it can-- on its own.

At that point it's up to the sales force and the bean counters. To keep the revenue stream thriving, you need people who can push sales in new markets and fiddle with the money. You need marketeers and accountants to run the company. The people who create the product are not so important, because making the product better will not make the business more profitable. Put another way, you can only drive so many sales by being good at your product. After that, you can only drive more sales by being good at selling.

It puts the sales people in charge, and that immediately starts to destroy the product, because the sales-oriented management turns to the people who actually create the product and says, "Never mind making products that work well-- I want a product that we can sell. Our market research says that people really want pink flying weasels as pets, so stop whining and get in there with that pink spray paint and staple some wings on those weasels. Of course it's bad for the weasels and the customers, but we have sales to make today. We'll worry about tomorrow the next time the sun rises."

It's a model worth understanding when considering charter schools. A company that makes computers or cheese-curlers or hamster shoes will take a while to get to sales-over-product stage, but a charter is bean counter ready from day one. From the moment it opens, the modern charter's main business is not education-- it's sales.

We've seen this repeatedly. The K12 cyber chain has been plagued by lawsuits that turn up former employees who complain of a company that is focused primarily on making sales any way it can. K12 has been particularly notorious for churn-- just trying to get new names on the roster faster than the old ones struggle and give up. At one point, K12 operations in Ohio were posting a staggering 51% rate of churn.

K12's mission creep was so great that even cyberschool supporters were bothered. Houston Tucker was the company's marketing director, and he left saying, "The K12 I joined isn't the one I left."

K12 is a striking example of the charter's need to market above all else, but they're hardly an anomaly. A public school without a marketing department is like a weasel without wings, but a modern charter without a marketing department is like a weasel without food

Just google "charter school marketing vp"-- Charter Schools USA, KIPP, Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools-- over a million hits come back and even if we assume that only 2% of those are actual charter school marketing jobs, that's still a huge number of people in charter school sales. And that's before we get to people like Eva Moscowitz-- would you say that Moscowitz is more about providing pedagogical leadership for Success Academy, or about fundraising and marketing for the chain. Certainly the budget for marketing at these schools is stunningly large. A similar quick-and-dirty search for public school marketing officers came up empty.

When modern charter and choice advocates extol the virtues of competition, they're really demanding that public schools meet them on the field of combat where marketing and advertising are the tools of battle. And if public schools go to meet them there, schools lose regardless of the outcome. It's the triumph of the sales department and bean counters over product people, the rise of an education system that thinks of itself as an industry and which is far more concerned about marketing than educating and which thinks nothing of stapling onto weasels.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Liberation & Cain's Problem

In Wisconsin, Governor (and presumptive entrant in the GOP Presidential rat race) Scott Walker has proposed to give the state university system freedom and independence. Specifically, he wants to liberate them from the oppression of about $300 million of state support over the next two years. He's also getting rid of many government mandates and statutes governing the university system, so they are free to innovatively slash whatever they like to make up for the shortfall.

This is solid conservative principle in action. Also in Wisconsin, we just saw a proposal for zones in Milwaukee's poorest areas that would "unleash" the power of individuals by getting them off welfare, a refrain that has been heard in virtually every state in the union. This has become a modern moebius version of the social program-- the best way to help the poor is to cut their government support.

The independence argument has crept into education as well, with the repeated assertion that throwing money at schools just won't help, the idea that schools are too dependent on financial assistance and that support should be trimmed back to make them more nimble, robust, flexible, innovative. The basic premise of school choice is that by taking resources away from public schools, we will force the public schools to become better by making better use of their newly-reduced resources.

I suspect that there are people who truly believe this, and I can even see why. but I don't believe for a second that any of the leaders and politicians who espouse it actually believe it at all. Not a bit. Here's why. They never bring it up in reference to anything except social services programs.

None of these corporate Masters of the Universe say, "We need to spark some creativity in the widget division, so let's cut their budget." Nor do they say, "The bumswagger division has done some great work, so lets reward them by cutting off their financial support."

None of these political whiz kids says, "Wall Street corporations have become too dependent on the largess of the federal government. We must help them out by pushing them off the federal teat. That way we can unleash them and their innovative creativity."

No-- in the corporate world, you go see a some Master of the Universe and make your pitch that you plan to be, hope to be, expect to be creative and innovative. Then the Master of the Universe helps unleash the innovation by handing over a pile of money.

I mean, look at the Gates Foundation. They have unleashed a hundred different cheerleaders for the common core and charters and other reformster fun zones by throwing money at them and there certainly doesn't seem to have been great concern that groups like TFA or CAP or any of the dozens of astroturf groups that have bloomed in the last decade-- nobody seems to be sitting back at the main office shaking their heads in serious and mournful tones saying, "Guys, I'm afraid that we have just made these groups too dependent on us. We should liberate them and unleash them so they can do great things."

No-- in these cases they do the opposite. Let's liberate innovation by supporting it; let's unleash innovation by funding it.

I expect they see a distinction between the two types of liberation-- liberating some folks by giving them money and liberating other folks cutting them off, making them do without support.

I suspect that they are following the simplest human impulse. Let's take care of Our People.

It is Cain's problem. The difficult question is not, "Am I my brother's keeper?" We all know the answer to that. The hard question is, "Who is my brother?"

The human inclination is to limit our compassion to members of our own tribe. My brother is a person like me. Those people over there who are not like ought to shape up; the ways in which they are different are probably part of their problem in the first place. We know on some level that it's wrong, but we can't help it. And yes-- we are just as bad when we assume that those damn reformsters must be friendless terrible people whose own mothers probably hate them.

I'm inclined to believe that one of the reasons that we're here is to take care of each other (and yes, I also believe that in the event there is no reason we're here, that only makes taking care of each other a greater imperative). I'm pretty sure it's a simple as that. Each of us is uniquely positioned to take care of a particular batch of people for a particular period of time.

I am not a puppies and rainbows guy, so I absolutely believe that sometimes taking care of people looks more like a kick in the butt than a pat on the head. But I also believe that step one means recognizing and honoring a person's own aspirations for him- or her-self.

I believe that to liberate persons, you have to respect them, listen to them, probably even love them. And I see no respect or honoring or love in policies that say, "I don't want to give Those People money because they are The Wrong Type of People, and so I am going to try to make them hurt instead."

The root of far too many policy ideas is a simple one-- it's the belief that Those Kinds of People are making the wrong choices, and they should be suffering because of them. Anything that interferes with that suffering is interfering with cosmic justice, and if it's interfering by using my money, it's a double interference.

Too much of this thinking has seeped into education policy. If those kids don't want crappy schools, they shouldn't be poor. But if you're That Kind of Person, you end up poor and you should end up poor and you should suffer the effects of being poor. We'll set up better schools for some of those poor kids, but only the ones who show their willingness to be the Right Kind of Person.

That is not liberation. It is subjugation. That is not unleashing. It is leashing.

We cannot support schools with infinite resources that we don't have, and it doesn't help anyone to be given free ponies and ice cream every day just for drawing breath. But we have got to stop this ridiculous language of liberation, insisting that we can best help people become unleashed and free by turning our backs on them, making sure they feel the full sting of need, and ignoring our own moral imperative to help and support whoever we can.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Boston Consulting Group: Another Dark Horseman

Word went out today that immediately after Arkansas decided to make Little Rock Schools non-public, the Walton family called a "focus group" meeting "in conjunction with the Boston Consulting Group. This is worse than finding the slender man in the back of your family portrait. For a public school system, this is finding the grim reaper at your front door. And he's not selling cookies.

The Boston Consulting Group is often referred to as " management consulting group." That's not entirely accurate. BCG is one of The Big Three consulting groups-- the other two are McKinsey and Bain. People love working there, and the people who work there are recruited heavily from the very toppest universities. These are the guys that Fortune 500 companies call for help making money. Forbes lists them as America's 112th largest private company. Gutting and stripping school districts does not even require a tenth of their power or attention. They are officially scary.

Read up on BCG and you find they have mainly three big claims to fame, and all of them are deeply bad news for public education.

This is the growth-share matrix, used to help a corporation to decide how to allocate resources (aka how to figure out which losers could be starved out). Sound familiar?

The experience curve is even simpler. The more a task is performed, the lower the cost of performing it. In other words, if you can reduce a process (manufacturing, service, whatever) to a series of simple tasks that will be repeated over and over, you can reduce the cost of the process. Sound familiar?

This advantage matrix lets us divide businesses into one of four types in order to figure out which strategy best lets us cash in. For instance, when a business is scaleable but hard to do differentiation in, the answer is volume volume volume. Sound familiar?

BCG's arrival in Little Rock is unsurprising; they've been around the education block several times. They were in the news just last week when Parents United finally won a long court case to be allowed to see BCG's super-duper secret plans for Philadelphia schools, drawn up way back when Philly was first turned into one of the nation's largest non-public school systems, run by state-appointed executives rather than an elected board.

A major feature of BCG's plan for Philly seems to be standard for them-- close this bunch of schools, and open up some nifty charters. In other words, cut off resources to the dogs. As a top consulting group, BCG doesn't come cheap-- their consulting fee in Philly was reportedly $230,000 per week. That's just under $33,000 per day. That's a little less than the starting salary for a teacher in Philly. Per day. 

BCG has proposed a similar program in Memphis. Reportedly Cleveland, Seattle, Arizona, and New Orleans have also felt the loving BCG touch. BCG also has close friends in the charter world, with several folks hopping back and forth between BCG and the board of KIPP. BCG joined up with many of the big players (Gates, Joyce) to form Advance Illionois. And they helped write North Carolina's Race to the Top bid (all these painful details and more can be found in this 2012 article at The Common Errant). Strive in Cincinnati-- that's BCG, too. And last fall, they were spotted doing development planning for Connecticut's education sector.

A year ago, BCG teamed up with the Gates Foundation and the Harvard Business School; for their first magic trick, they produced "America's Education System at a Crossroads: New Research and Insights on Business-Educator Partnerships in PreK-12 Education." (If that language sounds vaguely familiar, it could be because Arne Duncan's Big Important Speech about ESEA reauthorization was entitled "America's Educational Crossroads"). The BCG "report" put forth three recommendations:

• Laying the policy foundations for education innovation: Business action is urgently needed to ensure Common Core State Standards are actually put into practice, for example.
• Scaling up proven innovations: Business leaders can partner with educators to scale up innovations that are already showing results.
• Reinventing the local education ecosystem: Business can help educators set and implement comprehensive strategies to upgrade education in specific cities and towns. 

 Yeah, that all sounds familiar, too. Their second piece of reportage, "Partial Credit: How America's School Superintendents See Business As a Partner" (because why talk about teachers-- these kinds of important dealings don't involve The Help who will do as their told when it's time to tell them), offers some concrete advice:

“Strengthening our schools is a big challenge. To get this job done, we must all work together. From designing new classroom tools to engaging with businesses, our educators must not just be included in the process, they must help lead it,” said Jeff Raikes, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

That all reaches a fuller pitch in "Lasting Impact: A Business Leader's Playbook for Supporting America's Schools"  (another BCG-Gates-Harvard joint production). It starts with an introduction that quotes the "rising tide of mediocrity," stops at "fortunately, we don't have to settle for incrementalism any more" and barrels down to more detailed discussion of the three strategies listed above.I may take you on a more detailed tour of this twenty-seven page tome, but for the moment, I don't have the heart to add one more gloomy chapter to this dark tale. Suffice it to say that it is a veritable bible for the corporate reformster. 

Bottom line? Say a little prayer for the formerly public schools of Little Rock, because BCG is in town and they're sharpening their axe.

Mismarketing the Core

Reader Rafe Gomez works at VC Inc. Marketing, "a provider of multimedia Sales Inquiry Optimized content." I tried to google "Sales Inquiry Optimized content" and discovered that VC Inc not only provide this service, but are the only people on the internet using this phrase.

Whatever his bona fides in the world of fancy huckstering, Gomez does offer an interesting perspective on Common Core. Specifically, he approaches the Core as a product that was not very effectively marketed, and in this blog piece, he presents the Five Marketing Lessons That the Common Core Initiative Should Have Followed. It's an interesting look at the reformsters' issues from a different discipline's perspective.

In general, he suggests that "the Common Core proponents didn't perform their due diligence," and were more intent on getting the Core launched and "disrupting" public education instead of "bulletproofing its contents, perfecting its pedagogy, and proving its value to implementers (teachers) and end users (students, and by extension, their parents)." Here are his five lessons.

1) Inspire bottom up innovation.

If the true goal of the Common Core's architects was to devise high-quality academic standards that prepared public school students for college, career, and life, they should have enlisted teachers to formulate, test, and refine such standards themselves that were appropriate for their respective grade levels.

Facebook was designed and implemented from the bottom up. It may seem obvious now, but nobody was telling Zuckerberg to go design this thing-- he just set out to fill a need. Involving teachers in the creation of the Core would have resulted in a better product and created much more traction with the people who were actually going to use it.

2) Disrupt productively

Gomez gives the Core more credit than it deserves, saying that it's too early to make the call on whether it's productive or unproductive. We know it's unproductive, which just goes to prove his point. A bull in a China shop is disruptive, but not in a creative or productive way.

3) Deliver undeniable 360 degree benefits

The best marketing is product that provides something that people want. Gomez offers LinkedIn as his example. It launched and it took off because it provided something people wanted and it delivered on that promise well.

Gomez is again generous to the Core.

Though the Common Core has many laudable goals, its clear-cut advantages have yet to be realized. With no universally agreed upon benefits to speak of, it's not currently possible for the Common Core to attain rapturous LinkedIn-like buy-in among implementers (teachers) or end users (students and their parents). 

The laudable goals may be arguable, but Gomez is correct in saying that part of the Core's problem is that it hasn't delivered anything useful. If it worked, and worked well, Bill Gates and other cheerleaders could save their money, because teachers would be pushing the Common Core on their own.

4) Listen, adapt, and improve

Successful companies include a feedback loop in their marketing, a way for them to assess how well their stuff is playing to the audience and adjust accordingly. Gomez offers the example of Ford's messed-up MyFord Touch, but my mind went straight to New Coke. After marketing the living daylights out of it, Coke could have sworn that the public could either buy the new stuff or go thirsty. Instead, they listened, adapted, and fixed the problem.

Common Core, of course, has no such capacity. The creators wrote it, copyrighted it, and dispersed to other profitable jobs. If you have a suggestion about the Core, you can talk to the wall, write your idea down and bury it wrapped around a warty toad leg under a full moon, or call the Common Core help line. Ha! Actually, only two of those three solutions are actually possible. Guess which one isn't (hint: it involves a phone).

5) Respect and thrill your customers

Gomez mentions Amazon's fifth consecutive year in the Wall Street Journal customer service hall of fame. People love amazon because it busts its ass to make its customers happy (we'll set aside for the moment exactly how happy they make their employees). Gomez suggests that CCSS could have used Amazon's desire to thrill (and he calls Common Core a "curriculum," inadvertently underlining how CCSS has also failed in the clear messaging department).

But unfortunately, the pursuit of servicing and satisfying their "customers" (teachers, students, and parents) isn't mentioned in any of their marketing collateral. And as discussed above, respecting and thrilling their customers doesn't seem to be an element in their implementation protocol.

For a marketing guy, Gomez sure has a way with understatement. This point is solid, and it actually makes me a little sad to contemplate how used we are as teachers to working in a world where being amazing and awesome and thrilling and respectful are adjectives that we don't even expect to encounter.

Interesting to contemplate the failures of Common Core from another perspective. Also interesting to realize that even though we think of the Core as something that has been sculpted and marketed with the power of a mountain of greenbacks behind it, even that marketing push has been poorly done. Not only are the Captains of the Core rank amateurs at education, but they are marketing amateurs as well.

Ohio Superintendents Step Up

Sixteen superintendents from Lorain County, Ohio, have stepped up to speak out for public education in Ohio.

Lorain County is a short hop west of Cleveland, right on the lake. It has given the world Toni Morrison and Tom Batiuk. My first teaching job was at Lorain High School, one of the three public high schools in the city. That was 1979-- the city was a bit over 80K in population, and solidly blue-collar, with steel, auto, and shipping industries firmly in place. The bottom soon dropped out. I was RIFfed at the end of my first year; a year later Lorain was on the news as part of a feature on the collapsing industrial economy. Today the high school where I taught is a vacant lot. So I have a soft spot for Lorain County.

As reported by Michael Sangiacomo on, the sixteen superintendents of Lorain County have come together to call for big changes, particularly targeting "excessive student testing, overly strict teacher evaluations, loss of state funding to charter and online schools, and other cuts in funding."

Funding formulas are a special kind of bizarre in Ohio. According to the superintendents, the state actually pays more to send students to charters and cybers than to send them to public school. They offered some specific examples but the overall average is striking by itself-- the state average per pupil payment to traditional public schools is $3,540 per student, but the average payment to an Ohio charter is $7,189.

The superintendents have a website-- that at the moment offers just a few pieces of information.

One is the summary of the survey that the superintendents conducted in January of 2015. The summary of what they heard from Lorain County residents is short but sweet

* their school districts are doing an excellent or good job,
* high quality teachers are the most important indicator of a high quality education
* earning high marks on the state report card isn't that important
* increased state testing has not helped students
* decisions are best made at the local level,
* preschool education– especially for those students from poverty-- should be expanded (and they said they would increase their taxes to support it)
* school finance is the biggest challenge facing our schools,
* and their local tax dollars should not be going to support private schools and for-profit and online charter schools

The superintendents offer their response as well. They note that the vast majority of citizens are unaware of what's coming out of Columbus and DC. They have some specific concerns about some Ohio reforms, but their overriding concern is " the loss of local control of our public schools." And this, which I found interesting:

We are much to blame for not standing up to these ill-fated education reforms.

 There are some other interesting chunks of information on the site, including a link to the site about How Ohio Charter Schools Are Performing, which features a chance to plug in a charter and compare it to your own school results and a bank of news that provides information about how the charter fight is going. This site comes from the Ohio Charter School Accountability Project, which is a joint venture of the Ohio Education Association and Innovation Ohio. 

Ohio has been hammered hard by the reformsters, and the political leaders of the state have made no secret of their love for charters and privatization. It's nice to see an entire county's worth of school leaders standing up to fight back for public education.

Public Schools Are Not Monopolies

A common rhetorical flourish among reformsters from charter boosters to the governor of New York is to refer to public schools as a monopoly.

That's not the truth. To call public schools a monopoly is to either reveal ignorance or hide behind a lie.

To have a monopoly, we must have a single person or business entity which controls all the supply of a particular commodity. Now, schools are not businesses and education is not a commodity, but for our purposes, let's go ahead and pretend that the term can be stretched to cover something like schooling.

A monopoly would be a situation in which you can't get schooling from anyone else. Put another way, it would be a situation in which you have to deal with a particular boss or set of bosses.

Those of us of a certain age remember when the phone company was a monopoly. It didn't matter where you lived or what service you wanted in a phone, ultimately you were dealing with exactly the same corporate board of directors. And you couldn't do a thing about it.

Public schools would be a monopoly --

-- if every single school in the country was ultimately run by the same board of directors. They are not. That has always been one of the reasons that people choose to live in West Egg instead of in East Egg-- they like the West Egg schools better.

-- if the management of the school could not be replaced by the customers. But they can be. We have this thing called elections, in which the public can replace as many of the board of directors as they wish. Imagine what would happen to a corporation like Microsoft or US Air if they could be voted off the board by a vote of every customer of the company? They can't, but the board of a public school can be.

I was struck this morning, reading Jersey Jazzman's account of the struggle over public education in Jersey City, just how much the reformerized school districts behave like true monopolies.

Graduates of the Broad School, where future school bosses receive master of the universe training, cranks out people who prefer a setting where they answer to nobody. Reed Hastings is just one charter fan who has complained about having elected school boards. The push repeatedly in places like Philly and New Jersey and Detroit and unfortunately the list goes on and on-- that push is to cut the elected board out of the picture and replace it with a structure that is politically insulated from the voters.

Charter and choice fans talk about busting government school monopolies, but what they want specifically is a setting where they answer to no one and where no elected official can bother them. Elected officials are a pain because they have to keep voters happy.

And so we repeatedly see school leaders like Cami Anderson and John White who plough on secure in knowing that they don't have to answer to the voters or the customers or anyone.

That is what monopoly looks like on the ground. You take your complaint to the boss and the boss says, "So what? That's what I want to do, and you can't do a thing about it." And that's not what we get at public schools, where the voters can hire and fire the board members who are the ultimate bosses. That's what we get at school systems that have been reformed, or charter systems that have no elected board and need not answer to anyone.

That's the upside-down world of school reform. Use accusations of "monopoly" to help cut down the public system, and then replace it with systems that behave far more like monopolies than public schools ever did.