Having the Conversation

In a longer piece that is eminently worth reading in its entirety, communications consultant and writer Jeff Bryant (@jeffbcdm) analyzes recent comments from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on the crisis in Philadelphia. If you haven’t followed this story, the short version is that a slow and steady strangling off of funding from state and local sources has come to a head, and opponents are beginning to mobilize against the latest proposed budget cuts in Philly, which would eliminate counselors, security, classes in art, music and PE, as well as lifting the cap on class sizes.

The secretary’s comments, via the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“There’s no excuse for a public school system anywhere in the U.S. to be in this situation in the 21st century…”I strongly urge everyone involved to continue working together to avert this educational crisis.”

Bryant smartly calls out this appropriation of “no excuses,” long the mantra of ed reformers who sought to blame teachers and their unions for most of the problems with American education. Duncan, having long been associated with that camp, seems an odd candidate to shift the terms of this debate so dramatically, but that’s just what he’s done, according to Jeff Bryant. The excuses, in this case, come from bureaucrats and policymakers, legislators and executives–Duncan is right that the public should not accept excuses from these leaders of public school systems.

Unfortunately, the funding crisis in Philadelphia, sharing much in common with Rahm Emanuel’s move to shutter 54 schools in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods in Chicago, is little more than cover. Budget austerity has long been used to justify structural changes to public institutions and, when it comes to schools, teachers and schools tend to face the brunt of the suffering. Low-income students are also most likely to be affected. This is a real problem, not only for the students and educators affected in Philly and Chicago, but for everyone concerned with the country’s educational future.

“Budgets are moral documents,” as many a wise man has attested, so shortchanging money for city schools reflects official priorities. We substitute austerity and talk of finances in place of a legitimate debate about how to utilize resources that are legitimately limited. The state of Pennsylvania is investing $400 million into a new prison complex outside Philly, money that could more than fill the budget gap faces the city’s schools. Chicago is building a stadium development for a lame basketball team while closing schools and laying off teachers there. There are certainly budget deficits in both locales, but that isn’t a coincidence; Arne Duncan and his predecessor Margaret Spellings have promoted school competition and grant programs that shortchange the neediest schools and students. As high-stakes accountability based on test scores chokes off money for poor districts and the disadvantaged students enrolled, it is beyond hypocritical for municipal, state or federal leaders to wring their hands and stress about limited resources. It’s just not honest.

Worst of all, inventing financial crises to justify dramatic changes to the school system eliminates the possibility for honest debate. While the cuts noted in linked pieces above seem draconian, it’s impossible to argue against any school closures in a place like Chicago, where enrollment has dropped by 145,000 since 2010. Instead of engaging in democratic dialogue over how best to restructure a struggling district, the mayor has attempted to push through changes without any consultation or collaboration with the affected populations.

As so often happens in education debates, we never get to the most important part of the conversation (and if you made it this far, I appreciate your dedication! almost there…). How can districts respond to shifting enrollment patterns and other demographic changes? School closure need not be a political third rail, because oftentimes it has produced measurable positive affects. The campus model, where large schools have been on the chopping block in favor of new smaller schools, has made a huge difference in a number of communities. In New York City, new schools have transformed school cultures in a number of buildings that not long ago were unsafe and made learning difficult for students. A few examples include the Julia Richman campus (Upper East Side), Park West (on 10th Ave in Hell’s Kitchen), Prospect Heights and South Shore in Brooklyn, Kennedy in the Bronx, the list goes on and on. While all new schools certainly don’t outperform the schools they replaced, the totality of the evidence (including an oft-cited MDRC study) suggests that small schools of choice with greater principal autonomy leads to better results. This isn’t always the case, though, and closing a school is a decision that has to based on the conditions in that specific school. What are the conditions that would justify closing a school? I bet even Randi Weingarten and Karen Lewis would concede that some set of conditions might merit the closure of a single school, but I’m equally sure they won’t talk about that in the current climate of reform.

Education isn’t about making excuses, but it is about having the conversation. A democratic society demands collaboration, and there is no excuse for shirking that essential responsibility.

How High-Stakes Testing Feeds the School-to-Prison Pipeline (h/t FairTest)

This is my daily reminder that I need to spend more time on communication and connecting the dots…to me, this has long been obvious, but it represents a leap to many. We must see oppression holistically, recognizing the evils of racism, classism, and injustice have always been found in public school classrooms.

Schools reflect culture as much as they shape it, and in that way I’m in agreement with Anne Frank: schools are basically good at heart. At that level, most teachers and administrators are genuinely working to educate their students. Therefore, I’m drawn to structural explanations for the obvious school failures that are all too common. High-stakes testing undermines the efforts of compassionate educators, parents and students around the country. The standardized tests we force young people to pass to receive diplomas are unfair and dangerous, which is clear from the excellent infographic from FairTest:

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Reflections on Privilege

I spent the weekend here, at my grandmother’s house in the Hamptons. While no one in my mother’s family has much money, this house has been passed down since only whalers and fishermen occupied the South Fork of Long Island. Now, this tiny plot of land is worth more than anything else they own, and it is the main vestige of family privilege.

I grew up steadily middle class, somewhere in the middle of the distribution in a boring suburban town in New England. White, male and educated at an expensive private university, I represent privilege to a lot of people even before we meet. Both of my parents earned graduate degrees, and they came from educated families, but there was never a ton of money around. My siblings and I all went into debt for college and worked our way through parts of high school and college.

All this is preamble to the dilemma I’ve been having recently: trying to reconcile my obvious privilege with my job in a high poverty school in Brooklyn. My identity makes me an outlier. Students had no problem with this, and neither did my colleagues. It’s my own uneasiness that makes my identity an obstacle. I’m the only one who makes it an issue.

In reality, the issue isn’t my privilege, it’s the enormous gap between my advantages and the shameful conditions experienced by my students and their families. In college, I had the opposite experience of privilege: at an prestigious liberal arts college, I was shocked by the wealth displayed all around me. I carried a chip on my shoulder because I couldn’t afford the costly spring break trips and other trappings of the super-rich. In some ways, my identity in socioeconomic terms is suffering from yo-yo syndrome: I went from the middle of the road through high school, close to the bottom in college, and now I find myself reacting to my comparably elite status next to the young people who have animated the past two years of my life.

I have more in common with the students I see in class than the powerful interests that control education reform, but in some important ways, I feel responsible to answer for the crimes of white people, elite interests, and the official world all at once. My students have been screwed by an unfair, discriminatory public school system, and although my career is so new, I carry guilt for history’s inequities. In an embarrassing acknowledgment of navel-gazing, I have to admit, I feel the weight of the stereotypes I’ve been known to rail against, white savior complexes and Freedom Writers alike.

I’ve been listening to a lot of 1990’s hip-hop recently, reconciling my upbringing idolizing Shaquille O’Neal, Deion Sanders and Jay-Z with my daily life, both in the mostly white neighborhood where I live and the predominantly black neighborhood where I work. So we’ll give Hov the last word:

Go with what makes sense
Since
I know what I’m up against
We as rappers must decide what’s most impor-tant
And i can’t help the poor if I’m one of them
So I got rich and gave back
To me that’s the win, win

Towards a Broader Conception of Violence

As a history teacher, I spend a lot of time discussing and thinking about violence—wars, conflict, and the like. Students, especially my sophomore boys, are enthralled by talk of war, artillery, bombs and destruction. Even the most disruptive kids tuned in when we covered the World Wars. Some would argue that this is a reflection of our culture’s embrace of violence, especially as its connected to masculinity, but I’m aligned with Thomas Hobbes: humans are prone to violence, and some level of bloodthirstiness is a natural, if undesirable tendency.

In my day job at an urban high school, I’m often forced out of my theoretical bubble by actual violence. Students fighting in the halls or cafeteria is relatively rare at my school (knocking on wood), because we have teachers and staff who care enough to step in if they/we see conflicts escalating. Of course, there are some conflicts we cant resolve and others we don’t recognize in time, so fights do happen. Regardless, conflicts occur frequently

My school lies in a violent neighborhood, and at times, that violence interferes with our students’ education. For some students, neighborhood violence has already scarred them, leaving many teens in the inner city traumatized. What happens to these young people, many of whom are also the victims of structural violence at the hands of a state and society that sees them as less than in so many ways? Just last week, a black fourteen year-old boy was choked, tackled and pinned to the ground for staring threateningly at Miami-Dade police, all while holding a puppy. It would be funny if it weren’t the latest example of absurd abuse of young black men at the hands of our police state. Most of my students are young men of color, and more than ever, I appreciate the violence carried out on them as a result of their identity.

Violence works in cycles, and this helps to explain why young black men tend to be . A local nonprofit that I’ve been very impressed by describes gun violence as “a disease which has infected our society and is continuing to spread.” The Centers for Disease Control has also written about the public health approach to violence. In a community ravaged by violence–Crown Heights, Brooklyn–the entire community has to wake up and pay attention. Not only that, we need to be actively searching for any action that might reduce the scourge of violence that seems to have infected this neighborhood.

Just this weekend, another young black man was shot and killed, this time on the block between my school and my team’s practice field. My honest belief is that the violence we see is almost always traceable to an earlier violent incident. Sometimes the cause is immediate–retaliation, revenge, etc–but other times, we have to search for a cause. Violence can seem inexplicable, but not with the broader understanding advocated by the World Health Organization, among others. The scars of violence are long-lasting, and they persist. As Dr. King told us, violence begets violence and hate begets hate.

The original violence, at least for many of my students, was abandonment or abuse by one or both parents. A lot has been written about the “breakdown of the American family,” some more histrionic than is warranted, but there is truth to the idea that growing up without a father is traumatic. It’s an absence that cant really be solved for, and it absolutely has a ripple effect. Young people who grow up with a single mother are more likely to commit crimes, drop out of school, and suffer from poverty (The Consequences of Fatherlessness)

I feel called to work with my students because I know what this feels like–fatherlessness, if not criminality and dropping out. I remember how important it was (and still is) for me to have responsible, caring male figures in my life, especially teachers and coaches. Violence comes from the absence of compassionate role models and mentors. Education is…finding and filling these gaps.

Understanding where violence comes from and addressing it there

Teaching and Parenting

This has been a long week at school, our first full week back after the false start February break (NYC schools were open Wed-Fri, to make up for time lost due to Sandy). Even though it’s only Thursday, the past few days really dragged, so by the time we dismissed today, everybody was ready for some rest.

But, since February will have ended by the time most people read this, we had to fit in our monthly PTA meeting. I was dreading it, but I made the decision that it was too important to miss. This was our first meeting since President Obama mentioned us by name, saying “We need to give every American student opportunities like this.” While we had a slightly higher turnout, by the time I walked out of school, I wasn’t thinking about anything but the relationships inside the school.

I was pleasantly surprised to see the mother of one of my students–alternately my favorite and most frustrating. He’s a sophomore, on the slow and steady improvement track after an absolutely disastrous 9th grade year–discipline problems, poor work habits, generally very immature. As a result, I’ve spoken to both of his parents on multiple occasions.

At the end of the meeting, she comes over to check in with me, and we chat about her son. He’s been doing fine in my class, and I mentioned some work he was missing. Then we moved to behavior, and we went back and forth on a few topics. I explained one incident, pulling out the common theme of a few times recently when he had lost his temper a bit. 

Here’s what she said, and it made my whole week: 

“Well Mr. E, you certainly know my son! I hope you have a blessed evening.”

If I’m ever asked for a secret to good teaching, good schools, anything to do with youth development, here it comes. The first several times this kid spoke to me, he had been kicked out of class for some kind of misbehavior. I’ll be honest, I had no idea how to deal with any of these situations, having received almost no training. So while I’d like to take credit for being persuaded of this approach’s power before trying it, half of any success I take credit for is luck. In any case, here’s what I did…here’s the secret:

I listened. I asked him to talk, and I listened carefully to each word he said. Now, this young man hangs on my every word, and he’s getting better, slowly but surely. He’s connected to school in a way that makes me confident that he’ll continue to mature and eventually graduate. Ultimately, education is about relationships. Students learn when they know their teacher cares about them, and as a teacher, my job is easiest with students I know on a personal level. 

The best way to wrap up a grueling day is to be reminded that your efforts are worthwhile. Hearing a mother’s joy that, yes, her son is known at school…that’s why I go in early, stay late, put in extra time. Because it matters. This kid, from a tough neighborhood, deserves a chance as much as or more than most anybody I know. He deserves to be known at school, and we’re successful to the extent that students like him put their trust into an institution that has screwed them over time and again. One by one, this is what teaching is about…slowly but surely.

What is College Readiness?

If you’re new to the conversation about “college readiness,” you might suppose that preparedness would be measured in multiple ways. Of course, many students who can score well on tests lack the personal and social skills necessary to succeed in college. On the other hand, some students struggle on standardized tests, but perhaps they could demonstrate readiness for college through grades, effort and teacher recommendation.

WRONG

According to the City University of New York (CUNY), the arbiters of college readiness for New York City public schools, it is much simpler than that. From the Academics section of CUNY’s website:

Students are considered proficient in reading and writing if they can document any one of the following:

  • SAT I verbal score of 480 or higher or critical reading score of 480 or higher
  • ACT English score of 20 or higher
  • N.Y. State English Regents score of 75 or higher
  • CUNY Assessment Tests:
    • Reading Test score of 70 or higher and Writing Test score of 56 or higher.

My school offers students college courses, at a CUNY school, as soon as they demonstrate proficiency by these standards, mostly Regents results. Lest you assume mathematics has more reasonable requirements, that discipline also publishes a set of scores that apparently correlate to “readiness” in a sense. Typically, students need to score an 80 on any math Regents exam, and earn credits in the other courses that offer Regents–algebra 1+2 and geometry. Look at the link above for detailed requirements for the different schools.

These scores, used as a gatekeeper for credit-bearing courses, are inevitably arbitrary. Although the assessment experts could (and have) explain how they were determined, scores on standardized tests that change regularly cant possibly be consistent measures of something as nebulous as college readiness. In fact, the foremost experts in assessment identified these scores after a study by Dan Koretz of Harvard University. This was a way to halt the score inflation that skyrocketed under former chancellor Joel Klein and Mayor Bloomberg, allowing them to claim credit for score increases each and every year of the administration.

Unfortunately, the tests remain fairly meaningless. While a score of 80 on a math Regents may indeed predict initial success in a college math course (Koretz and his team say C+), there is little predictive value beyond the first course. Likewise, the Internet masses agree that the Regents are a poor indicator of college readiness. Oh, and as an aside, there’s quite a bit of debate over the fairness of any standardized tests. More importantly, college readiness remains a proxy for income, demographics and geography.

The Coalition for Educational Justice published an extremely valuable map of college readiness throughout the five boroughs. East New York, one of the poorer areas of Brooklyn and where many of my students reside, graduates 12% of students ready for college. Park Slope, an upper class neighborhood about 2 miles away, is at 48%. Across the city, the numbers are fairly predictable. Is college readiness simply a proxy for wealth? Zip code?

The school where I work was founded to remedy this apparent inequity in the education provided for our youth. Our staff meets regularly with college professors to map requirements for their courses back to our instruction at the high school level, meaning we have more information than most about what college readiness truly means. Yet, due to the rigid proficiency requirements linked above, students are not deemed “college ready” until they meet the test score benchmarks.

Before I began teaching, that requirement simply felt wrong to me…but I couldn’t define why or how. As a student, I had an easy time with tests and exams, so I rarely spent much time considering the impact of these clumsy instruments on students who do not perform well. But now, they’re sitting in front of me. Since we know, from reliable social science, that high-stakes standardized tests have unfair outcomes for minority, poor and ELL students (e.g. HeubertFleming & Garcia, Linn), it seems puzzling that we still insist on the numbers. While NYC is home to an extremely diverse population, very few Black and minority students ever attain “college readiness” by these measures; on the other hand, my short time in a school tells me that, given a real opportunity, these kids are extraordinarily capable.

State of the Union Shout-out

As I sat down to watch the State of the Union on Tuesday evening, carrying the usual skepticism that is owed to political oratory, I was hoping for new ideas that would guide the country towards progressive change in a second term. Although I work in a school, I listened for talk of education as well as climate change, gun control and foreign policy, among the myriad of topics covered in such a massive speech.

In his first term, Obama and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan offered the Race to the Top competition. Much criticism has been levied at this initiative, mostly attacking the goals of the program–more charter schools, teacher evaluations and the removal of tenure protections, and the turnaround models that have been the subject of controversy in NYC. In addition, Obama and Duncan have been lambasted for designing a program that is based on competition rather than need. Civil rights groups have been especially vocal critics.

 

I find most of these critiques compelling. Race to the Top, while an effective federal program in terms of persuading states to adopt favored policies, does little to improve the in-school experience of our most vulnerable young people. Other aspects of Obama’s educational agenda are less controversial and more popular among progressives: expanding early childhood education and enhancing career and technical education for workforce readiness. These ideas received the bulk of attention in Obama’s speech, including a reference to the apprenticeship model employed in Germany, which combines high school and college to prepare students for meaningful career opportunities.
“Now at schools like P-Tech in Brooklyn, a collaboration between New York Public Schools and City University of New York and IBM, students will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in computers or engineering. We need to give every American student opportunities like this.” (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/02/12/us/politics/obama-state-of-the-union-2013.html?hp)

P-TECH, or Pathways in Technology Early College High School, is a new school in its second year of operation in Crown Heights, in the Paul Robeson High School building. The idea, as the President explained, grew out of a collaboration between IBM, the NYC Department of Education and the City University of New York. Students begin in 9th grade and have the opportunity not only to earn an associate in applied sciences degree, but also to gain meaningful work experience through internships and a sequence of work-based learning activities developed jointly between the partners, including the school’s staff. Having worked on the school’s design dating back to an internship at the DOE’s Office of Postsecondary Readiness, I later transitioned to a role as a community coordinator at the school. I now teach social studies and coach the campus’ soccer team…only 3 years after my own graduation from college. I left college in May 2010 with a BA, entering an uncertain and challenging job market. Through some luck, I met a DOE official who hired me, one thing led to another and I have been working on P-TECH ever since. I feel deeply caught up in the school’s development–it is my main, really only, professional achievement, and I could not be prouder.

The school is special because it is not based on the competition inherent in other parts of the President’s education agenda. We are an open enrollment school, with students who cover the whole range of NYC public school students. With our legacy class of students in their second semester of what would be 10th grade, over 60% of students are enrolled in college courses, including computer science, speech and engineering technology. A white man from Connecticut, I led the school’s recruitment efforts for the first two classes of students, meaning I met nearly all of our 227 students before they arrived at the school for their first day.

None of our students look like me–in fact, most of my kids think I look like every other white man, from Kevin Love to Steve Burns, best known as Steve from Blue’s Clues.  Working in a community where I am an outsider is invigorating, and it gives me a chance to relieve some of the burden of white, male, suburban privilege that I carry by virtue of the accident of my birth. As a representative of the dominant culture, often one of the few my students have come to know on a personal level, I have become sensitive to the subtle discrimination that for centuries has denied those who look like my students all manner of equal opportunity. The basic unfairness, not just of the past but also of the present, is a big part of what motivates me.

 

The model that is employed at P-TECH is powerful because it does more than provide opportunity, it presents students with the real possibility of a middle class career at a company like IBM. All students are matched with a mentor from IBM, which along with site visits, opens up the world of the corporation to young people who, with rare exception, had not previously envisioned themselves in this kind of future. Watching my students begin to see themselves in brighter futures, with a true pathway to get there, is the greatest inspiration. The work is hard, and it has to happen again every day, but this is a structure that encourages the investment on the part of staff and students, because the future holds such promise, both real and imagined.

The worst way to end a conversation

As a teacher who occasionally bumps heads with administration, I wonder how much of that is felt by students and families. Does it matter if we argue behind closed doors? I tend to believe that debate is a healthy and necessary component of democracy, so I push in that direction. In fact, shutting down discussion (absent a compelling reason) is an antidemocratic act, and it’s something I strive to avoid. You can imagine, then, how I felt after a particularly stupid exchange…

My school released new programs (schedules) for students and teachers today. I work at a relatively new small school in New York City, and today was our first day in a brand new block schedule. This means that we see one class Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and another class Tuesday and Thursday. At the high school I attended, in suburban Connecticut, we had block scheduling that alternated on A and B days, back-and-forth ad infinitum. That way, both courses balanced into equal duration over time. With the schedule I received today, students permanently operate on a different schedule; one group receives 50% more instruction than the other (2 90-minute sessions versus 3, or 180 minutes to 270).

This structure occurs a few times throughout the school’s program, so after dismissal today I discussed the imbalance with a math teacher (how do you think I came to understand the proportion?). At some point during our conversation, the AP who did programming began eavesdropping. She chimed in with some comments about the discrepancy, basically declaring that there was no other way it could be done. OK, no big.

I wondered, though, if the students with less time would sit in class for enough hours to receive course credit. As a NYC high school, we are evaluated on credit accumulation as well as Regents scores; not to mention, it’s important to students that they understood how many credits they are due to receive in a given course. I asked the AP about the credit hour issue, and her response was…chilly to say the least.

“That’s none of your concern, don’t worry about it. The principal has been working for x number of years, he knows what he’s doing.”

Leaving aside the meaningless assertion that experience leads directly to expertise, it was the first line that is sticking with me. First of all, whether as a teacher I have the professional right to know the number of credits that is to be awarded for courses I teach is irrelevant. I know how to check the various data systems which, once updated, will answer the question for me. I can probably even research the issue and look at other schools that have done similar things before, answering the question for myself. Still, I was shocked to hear that something that affects my students so meaningfully could be considered outside of my purview or the scope of my legitimate concern.

Of course, to survive as a teacher in the city you need thick skin, so I got over my hurt feelings pretty quickly. The bigger concern is how that attitude might already be infecting the school culture and our students. My primary ethos as a teacher comes primarily from Paulo Freire: I am a learner as well as a teacher, and education only occurs through active dialogue. In my classroom, students know that mistakes are encouraged, questions are (almost) always welcome, and the teacher is not the keeper of knowledge. We are all constantly trying to improve, even me, and that process is how we get by.

One thing I have learned in my short time in the NYC school system is that attitudes and relationships transfer–so the way the Chancellor works with his deputies influences the relationships below, and the way a Principal deals with teachers affects the way teachers interact with students. This is how the culture of a school forms, through the efforts of students, teachers, and administrators, all in concert, if not in total agreement. I have yet to discover if the opposite can also be true, if those of us at the front lines can make change from the grassroots, bottom up instead of top down.

In any case, I will go back to work tomorrow, with some group of students in front of me, and we’ll work together to get through a little more of the curriculum. I will keep my door open, I will listen to students and meet their needs, and most importantly, I will continue to ask questions. Because, well, education is all about asking the right questions.

Bloomberg’s Disgrace

This week, New York State released graduation and college readiness statistics, data which was announced with much fanfare in New York City. The city saw graduation rates reach a new record high, with 65% of students graduating (this number includes August graduates, which the state does not count). Unsurprisingly, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Dennis Walcott lauded the data and took much credit for the increase. Although some criticism has arisen due to the much lower (22%) rate of college readiness–assessed primarily by Regents exam scores–the reception in the media and around the city has generally been positive.

Bloomberg also highlighted the achievement of black and Hispanic students in the city, with 61% and 58% graduating on time, respectively. Compare this with white and Asian students, who graduated at rates of 78% and 82% respectively. By this measure, it would seem that the much-talked about “achievement gap” has shrunk under Bloomberg’s reign. Indeed, these numbers paint a relatively rosy picture of the performance of racial minorities in the city, good news for all.

Now let’s look at types of diplomas: here, unfortunately, the racial achievement gap remains. In NY state, students can earn a local, Regents, or Advanced Regents diploma (easiest to most difficult). In the city, 14% of Hispanic and 13% of Black students graduated with the local diploma–which will no longer count in 2011–compared to 9% of white students. More strikingly, 32% of white students earned an advanced diploma, compared to 8% on average for minority students.

Only 22% of city students leave high school “college ready” by the state’s measure, and the vast majority of these are white and Asian students. Minorities remain at the bottom of the barrel, barely graduating when they do, while huge proportions still fail to complete high school. One interesting part of this story is where the college-ready grads come from: over half of the students meeting this benchmark come from 20 high schools, including Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech, Bronx Science, LaGuardia, and Francis Lewis–all schools which serve disproportionately few students of color. At Stuyvesant, often regarded as the top high school in the city, only 7 black students were admitted in 2011, out of over 950 total.

In fact, under Mayor Bloomberg the racial achievement gap has remained steady or possibly even grown. Despite the mayor’s assertion that “We are closing the shameful achievement gap faster than ever,” as he said in 2009, the gap appears to have remained stagnant in real terms. The data used to support such claims prior to 2010 was based on flawed state tests that had been getting easier and easier. After the state called in psychometric experts and rejiggered the tests, the achievement gap reared its ugly head again, calling out this administration for its failure to serve minority students. Using this more reliable data, the achievement gap widened in the city.

Many smart commentators have written about the disgraceful achievement gap in NYC schools, but this isn’t even the disgrace I refer to in the title. Over the past several years, leaders of NYC’s school reform movement have done little but trumpet the supposed gains made since Bloomberg took control of the schools and hired Joel Klein as Chancellor. Nationwide, observers took notice of the progress the city seemed to have made. Yet on the NAEP, the most reliable exam to judge progress, NYC made no more progress than other urban districts, and the achievement gap stagnated.

What is most disgraceful is the credit-claiming that has gone on unabated, despite the altered information. The data clearly suggests a reversal on the achievement gap, with action required to remedy the situation, but instead we hear only brags from Emperor Bloomberg.

Education is about learning how to check for bias and evaluate a situation objectively. On this front, and many others, the Mayor needs to go back to school.

Astroturf and Education

Poison

A threat to democracy

In the past, conservative groups like FreedomWorks have been pilloried for organizing and advocacy tactics called astroturf. These organizations imitate grassroots citizens’ organizing campaigns, creating a false, misleading impression that citizens are independently rising up to support a cause, when instead, money is being spent to create just such an illusion.

It isn’t tough to see why tactics like paying staffers to post comments or posing as a supporter to catch an NPR executive saying something stupid on camera ought to be seen as a threat to open and honest political dialog. Just as importantly, this type of fake activism creates an atmosphere that allows politicians and public policy makers to remain uninformed about the public’s true perspective on an issue. It’s manipulation of public information at it’s devious best, mixing up even honest politicians with confusion over where the public stands.

In the worst cases, astroturf organizing pollutes the debate on an issue to such a severe extent that it’s impossible to discern where public opinion falls. A vicious cycle ensues where leaders respond to their mistaken perception of public opinion, rallying more support for policies and causes that are favored only by the monied few. This is precisely what is happening in education with Michelle Rhee’s new organization, StudentsFirst. The current policy featured on her homepage, and one of the group’s major initiatives, is ending what’s called “last in, first out” (LIFO) lay-off policies, which is the law of the land in most states.

The way the issues are framed by Rhee and her compatriots around the country is starkly similar to the way opponents frame the contrary position. Both parties claim their side protects great teachers and treats them more fairly. Of course, opponents are interested in protecting teachers writ large, with the understanding that most teachers are good, hard-working professionals–while Rhee and her astroturfers only look out for the young, well-educated teachers with less than 4 years of experience–the population that is affected most directly by LIFO. It advantages these (usually) young people, along with budget and finance officers and edu-privatizers, at the expense of highly-qualified, experienced teachers; not incidentally, these teachers are better paid and therefore more expensive than their younger counterparts. The fact that they have earned salary increases as a result of years of service educating children and improving their practice seems immaterial.

Many good arguments have been penned to oppose the destructive reforms that Rhee has proposed, perhaps none better than this thank you note rebuttal, from an educator in Michigan who unwittingly signed a petition in support of Rhee’s movement. It’s clear that the writer, Michael Paul Goldenberg, had no intention of supporting Rhee, and he inadvertently signed on due to malicious tactics employed at Change.org, with Rhee and StudentsFirst as the primary beneficiary.

Along with Care2, another internet petition service, Rhee and StudentsFirst have utilized change.org to manufacture support for an unpopular shift in personnel policies in school districts nationwide. This is troublesome, but it isn’t the full extent of Rhee’s manipulation of public opinion to support her agenda. Recently, the organization has taken things a step further, hiring experienced social media professionals to become active in supporting her cause. That step is actually wise business, and not cause for concern…until you realize that the folks she has been hiring have been making comments online in support of her agenda, without identifying themselves as employees. This is the standard operating procedure of astroturf.

This is wrong on so many levels, but most of all because it waters down and damages the real conversations that we must have to improve public schools. There is a legitimate debate to be had on lay-off policies, particularly during a time of great budget uncertainty. Yet, the needed democratic exchange, over this issue and similarly controversial changes, devolves into screaming matches and lawsuits rather than productive conversations.

Education is about learning how to discuss disagreements in an adult way, not in a childish fashion more akin to kicking and screaming than a professional exchange. We can and must disagree without being disagreeable–and also without being underhanded. Until we reach the point a point of more open, honest debate, the future of our public schools appears grim.