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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Where Are We Going?

Last night's Blog entry discussed the notion and nature of a mission, and concluded with a question regarding the future of public school education in our country.

Interestingly, I came across the following article on the website that addresses concerns associated with the future of public school education in a much more articulate and extensive manner.

Selling out public schools

Both Obama and Romney are assaulting public education. Five threats, in particular, stand out

Here in the industrialized world’s most economically unequal nation, public education is still held up as the great equalizer — if not of outcome, then of opportunity. Schools are expected to be machines that overcome poverty, low wages, urban decay and budget cuts while somehow singlehandedly leveling the playing field for the next generation. And if they don’t fully level the playing field, they are at least supposed to act as a counter-force against both racial and economic inequality.
That vision, however, is now under assault by both political parties in America. On the Republican side, the Washington Post reports Mitt Romney just unveiled “a pro-choice, pro-voucher, pro-states-rights education program that seems certain to hasten the privatization of the public education system” completely. On the other side, Wall Street titans in the Democratic Party with zero experience in education policy are marshaling tens of millions of dollars to do much of what Romney aims to do as president – and they often have a willing partner in President Barack “Race to the Top” Obama and various Democratic governors.
Funded by corporate interests who naturally despise organized labor, both sides have demonized teachers’ unions as the primary problem in education — somehow ignoring the fact that most of the best-performing public school systems in America and in the rest of the world are, in fact, unionized. (Are we never supposed to ask how, if unions are the primary problem, so many unionized schools in America and abroad do so well?) Not surprisingly, these politicians and activists insist they are driven solely by their regard for the nation’s children — and they expect us to ignore the massive amount of money their benefactors (and even the activists personally) stand to make by transforming public education into yet another private profit center. Worse, they ask us also to forget that in the last few years of aggressive “reform” (read: evisceration) of public education, the education gap has actually gotten far worse, with the most highly touted policies put in place now turning the schoolhouse into yet another catalyst of crushing inequality.
Here are the five most prominent of those policies — and how they threaten to make this country even more economically unequal and racially segregated than ever before.
1. Unequal Funding Formulas
A half-century of social science research confirms that factors outside the school — and specifically, poverty — are far more determinative in student achievement than anything that happens inside the school. This is why, as both New York University’s Diane Ravitch and Dissent magazine’s Joanne Barkan note, public schools in America’s wealthiest enclaves consistently rank among the highest achieving in the world.
Knowing that, it stands to reason that schools in the lowest-income areas should receive disproportionately more education funding than schools in high-income areas so that they can combat the systemic out-of-classroom factors that schools in wealthy neighborhoods don’t face. With this extra money, they might be able to fund the so-called “wraparound” services that even reformers like Geoffrey Canada admit are crucial to the success of public schools in high-poverty locales.
Yet, it’s the other way around. As a 2011 U.S. Department of Education report documented, “many high-poverty schools receive less than their fair share of state and local funding” leaving “students in high-poverty schools with fewer resources than schools attended by their wealthier peers.” This inequity is further exacerbated by local property-tax-based education funding formulas that often generate far more resources for wealthy high-property-value school districts than for destitute low-property-value enclaves. Inequality also is intensified by devious new taxpayer-subsidized scholarship programs that, according to the New York Times, “have been twisted to benefit private schools at the expense of the neediest children” in traditional public schools.
Policy-wise, changing such funding formulas to make sure schools in poor areas get more funding than schools in wealthy neighborhoods is fairly straightforward. But, then, the commonsense idea threatens the gated-community ethos of the wealthy and powerful who control our politics. It also fundamentally challenges the core principles of a nation that still likens spreading the wealth to confiscatory socialism. Thus, the idea remains off the table — and consequently the increasingly unequal funding of education now effectively subsidizes a system that is cementing inequality for the long haul.
In practice, that means schools in low-income areas continue to receive comparatively less funding to recruit teachers, upgrade classrooms, reduce class sizes and sustain all the other basics of a good education.
2. Vouchers and Charter Schools
In national politics, private education profiteers and anti-government ideologues have successfully manufactured a debate over privately administered charter schools and private-school vouchers, insisting that, if created all over the nation, they will improve educational achievement. “Manufactured,” though, is the key word — because when it comes to results, there is no debate over what the data show.
Stanford University’s landmark study of charters found that while “17 percent of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools, 37 percent of charter schools showed gains that were worse than their traditional public school counterparts” — meaning that, in total, charters actually harm overall student achievement. (Those results were corroborated by the Education Department’s National Center on Education Statistics.) Likewise, data from the nation’s largest voucher system prove that voucher-subsidized students do not systemically outperform students in traditional public school systems.
These facts, unfortunately, have little — if any — impact on the political rhetoric about education. But, then, at least there’s an ongoing discussion about the academic effectiveness of charters and vouchers. The same cannot be said for how those charter and voucher programs threaten to severely exacerbate racial and socioeconomic inequality.
When it comes to charter schools, Businessweek’s headline says it best: “Segregated Charter Schools Evoke Separate But Equal Era in U.S.” Here’s what we know, as I recounted in a recent newspaper column:
According to a new report from the National Education Policy Center, however, charters “tend to be more racially segregated than traditional public schools” – and in lots of places, they seem to be openly hostile to children who are poor, who are from minority communities or who have special education needs.
A smattering of headlines from across the country tells that story. “Nashville Charter Schools Blasted Over Racial Imbalance,” blared a recent headline in the Tennessean. “Charter Schools Face Discrimination Complaints,” read The Chronicle of Philanthropy. “Colorado Charter Schools Enroll Fewer With Needs,” screamed the Denver Post. “Charter Schools Enrolling Low Number of Poor Students,” reported the Miami Herald. The list goes on and on.
When it comes to vouchers, we can expect much the same if current pro-voucher efforts and a new Romney Administration successfully expand the idea nationwide. We know we can expect this because that’s exactly what happened in the nation that most recently went to a voucher system.
As University of Texas researchers documented in their study of Chile’s national voucher program:
Private-voucher schools have not only not reduced educational inequality, but also … have increased segmentation of the educational system according to (socioeconomic status) of students. Thus, the low and medium-low classes attend public schools, medium and medium-high classes study in private-vouchers, and the elite are educated in private-paid schools.
Why do vouchers increase inequality? Because they typically do not fund the entire private-school tuition bill, nor do they typically force private schools to accept the voucher as the sum total tuition. Not surprisingly, then, the wealthy are able to fill in the tuition gap with their own disposable income, while lower-income families can’t. Consequently, the voucher becomes a taxpayer handout to already middle- and upper-class parents to subsidize their children’s private school education, leaving economically disadvantaged kids in a newly defunded public school. Indeed, as the Texas researchers say, “Chilean parents from medium and medium-high classes were able to pay the additional money required, whereas the poorest parents did not have this choice.”
This very dynamic is already prevalent in the crypto-voucher programs being pioneered in states throughout the country. As the New York Times recently documented, conservative lawmakers have set up scholarship programs that pretend to be charitable endeavors but instead are designed as a tax subsidy for wealthy parents to finance their kids’ private school education. Because poorer families can’t afford those tuitions, even with the tax subsidy, low-income kids often remain in public education systems. Thanks to the way the scholarships divert public money into private schools, those public education systems are further depleted of resources, thus creating yet more educational inequality.
3. The Fee-Based Public School
For public education to be the great social equalizer it is supposed to be, it must limit economic barriers to entry. It must, in other words, be as close to free as possible. That’s why the new move to fee-based public schools is so troubling — it further turns public education into yet another instrument of economic stratification.
As the Wall Street Journal reports, schools across the country are “imposing or boosting fees for everything from enrolling in honors English to riding the bus.”
The fees run the gamut. In Kansas, for instance, one school district has created a $90 across-the-board “participation fee” for all students in order to fund extracurricular activities. In Maryland, it’s special fees for Advanced Placement biology courses. And perhaps worst of all, in Colorado’s largest school district, administrators are throwing kids off school buses until their parents pay a stiff transportation fee.
The move to such regressive fees has been prompted by the conservative movement’s success in draining government revenues, anti-tax politicians’ unwillingness to embrace new levies, and communities’ refusal to embrace measures to make up for budget shortfalls. Left without resources, local school administrators have thus resorted to fees. As one Maryland school official put it: “The reality is that the money has to come from somewhere.”
In the process, the new system is creating a whole new meaning for educational inequality. No longer is the inequity only between poor and rich school districts, it’s now between poor and rich kids within individual schools, themselves. Indeed, if high-income parents can pay the fees, their kids can have access to basic educational services — but when low-income parents can’t pay those fees, their kids are denied those same services.
4. Higher-Education Tuition Increases
For much the same reason, K-12 school administrators are moving their schools to fee-based models, and public universities have been jacking up tuition rates at a pace that far outstrips inflation. In just the last year, for example, tuition at these institutions rose a whopping 8.3 percent as universities sought to make up for legislatures’ huge reductions in higher-education funding.
At the same time, the New York Times reports that both private and public college scholarships have been cut. Additionally, as both Mitt Romney’s Wall Street-centric student loan initiative and Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget prove, federal loans and grants would only become more anemic in a Republican-dominated Washington.
The aggregate result of all this is to make access to higher education even more driven by economic privilege than it has been in the past. If your parents are wealthy and can pay ever higher tuition, you will have access to higher education, which gives you a better chance of higher wages. But if your parents aren’t wealthy and therefore can’t follow Mitt Romney’s request to lend you money, you either can’t go to college and will miss out on those opportunities for career advancement, or you are forced to assume crushing student debt. (No doubt, free college in other industrialized nations is a big part of why those other nations have higher rates of social mobility and lower rates of economic inequality than the United States.)
While it’s certainly true that economic status has always played a role in higher education in America, the key difference today is that economic status now increasingly affects access to public universities, not just private ones. That’s a major shift because those public universities were set up specifically to expand access — and mitigate economic obstacles — to higher education. Now, with financial barriers so high, they are becoming just another instrument of inequality.
5. Differential Tuition Rates Based on Majors
In 21st century America, math, science and business majors often make more money in the job market than their peers in other majors. In that sense, majoring in such subjects can be a means of moving up the economic ladder.
Unfortunately, more and more public universities are instituting regressive fees on those students who want to pursue those majors. As USA Today recently reported:
A growing number of public universities are charging higher tuition for math, science and business programs …
More than 140 public universities now use “differential tuition” plans, up 19% since 2006, according to research from Cornell’s Higher Education Research Institute. That number is increasing as states cut higher-education spending and schools try to pay for expensive technical programs …
Some worry that higher tuition will put off low-income students.
“The fear in all of this is will it lead to people being rationed out of classes?” said Ronald Ehrenberg, the Cornell researcher behind the tuition study.
That fear is legitimate. Already facing high tuition and massive debt, lower-income students are naturally more sensitive to add-on fees than wealthy students. The fees, then, serve to create a powerful deterrent to low-income students to major in precisely the fields that typically generate higher post-college incomes.
Ultimately, just like K-12 fees transform economic inequality into a factor inside individual schools, so to do “differential tuition” rates. In this case, low-income students face not just barriers to a given set of more expensive private schools, they now face new economic barriers to particular studies within the schools they somehow manage to afford. And because of that, low-income students will have an even harder time than rich kids in getting a post-college job that pays a good wage.
David Sirota is a best-selling author of the new book "Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now." He hosts the morning show on AM760 in Colorado. E-mail him at, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at .

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Launching A Mission

Launching a Mission

     Maintaining a focus on the space exploits of our country reveals another quirk. This chapter opened with a quote from John F. Kennedy urging the support of our whole country as it embarked upon a space race with the Russians. Much has happened since that call to action. Man landed on the moon. Rockets were replaced by the space shuttle. Astronauts have guided the space shuttle upwards on over ninety separate flights. Yet, despite an increase in the frequency of space travel our nation has largely been unmoved by these expeditions, with the unfortunate exception of the tragedies of The Challenger and The Columbia. Why have we become nonplussed?
     Legions of skeptics, while applauding and admiring the determination of seventy-seven year old John Glenn’s return to space in 1998, have asserted that NASA was resurrecting and exploiting Glenn’s position as an aging icon to spark interest in their work. Whatever the motive; it worked. Glenn was paraded down New York City’s “Canyon of Heroes” soon after his triumphant return. A population skewed toward middle aged baby boomers once again displayed their endearing worship of the brave astronaut. His trip held the attention of the public. For a brief slice of time the country was enthralled by the deviation from the perceived sterile, technocratic, business like image that people have of astronauts conducting esoteric experiments and deploying satellites. It remains to be seen whether NASA will be able to reinvent itself and sustain the public interest and support so necessary for its funding.
     In the months since I started a draft of this Blog entry, it has become apparent that NASA continues to change its role and scope. A privately sponsored space craft recently delivered a cargo load of supplies to the orbiting manned international space station. It appears that for-profit companies will fill the void and transport materials back and forth from earth to space stations. Beyond that, it sounds like some of these same enterprising businesses are developing plans for ships to mine minerals from asteroids, and many other possible ventures. NASA may be relegated to a marginal role in future space operations. It remains to be seen what NASA will be like in five years.
     Now, let’s examine public school education on a similar arc. The republican presidential nominee has expressed ardent support for choice to be exercised by parents in selecting learning experiences from a host of possible service providers, such as on-line virtual schools, charter schools, private schools, and others. Will the meaning, purpose, mission, and existence of the public sector of education fade like NASA?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Vision Problems

Vision Problems

     In order for a vision to work it must be clear to everyone and applicable to all members of the school staff. Remember years ago when your old Uncle John insisted on showing a family movie that was blurry because he couldn’t focus it? It didn’t matter how interesting the subject was, the out of focus pictures were a problem. You can’t expect people to follow a vision that’s not clear. The people will experience the same feeling of nausea and headache that you felt from the fuzzy images on film.

     Everyone must feel some sense of involvement, responsibility, and accountability. The school leader should communicate the vision in a reaffirming speech whenever appropriate at gatherings. The vision must be conveyed in a manner that each listener leaves the function with a clear understanding of the vision.

     For purposes of illustration, think of a photograph and picture yourself giving the annual speech prior to the opening of the school year. Imagine that you took a picture of the vision and you cut it into pieces and distributed it so each person held a portion of the vision in their hand. If you fail to seize the day and triumph with an invigorating oration you end up with a group of people with such a small perspective on the vision that they could never understand the whole picture.

     Now, if you’ve done your homework and prepared a speech using a recipe of ingredients as noted in Martin Luther King’s delivery, you’d have a product on the order of a hologram. A hologram is the three dimensional image created by a laser beam. If you could develop a hologram of the vision and then divide it into pieces each part contains the whole image intact rather than reflecting fragments of the original. Pamela Mang and Carol Sanford, authors of A Work in Progress at DuPont, indicate that no matter how many times you divide the hologram each part of the beam reveals the entire image. (Ray and Rinzler, 149) Communicate the vision like a hologram so each member of your audience departs that stump speech fully comprehending the vision and inspired to share it with others.

     John P. Kotter, author of Leading Change, offers the following rule of thumb regarding the viability of a vision: “Whenever you cannot describe the vision driving a change initiative in five minutes or less and get a reaction that signifies both understanding and interest, you are in trouble.”(Kotter, 9)
     What is the vision guiding the school where your children invest themselves in creating their future? Who develops the vision and the attendant elements of culture, measurement, direction, and purpose? (to identify just a few of the factors impacting a school). I sense that the vision is evaporating at the local level. Instead, state mandates and regulations serve to shape the form and scope of the school operation. The ability of a local community to grow the school as an extension of its beliefs and values is being hijacked by forces external to the community. The tightening constrictions imposed by state education departments in the form of accountability have bred standardization and uniformity of assessments and curriculum that dilute the opportunity for schools to distinguish themselves. Furthermore, those schools who at one time could exercise discretionary funds to foster program initiatives and extend learning opportunities beyond minimal experiences are now contending with fiscal shortfalls that have reduced course offerings and increased class sizes.

     What is the vision of education?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Fields That Count

Field days and field trips are traditional signs that the end of the school year is approaching. Unfortunately, another indicator of the waning days of the school year is the multitude of state mandated assessments. These two strands of events, though similar in their appearance on the calendar, are as different as night and day.

Think back on your own end-of-year days in school across the grades of your youth and I doubt that you will recall your performance on tests before you remember your experiences on field trips and field days. That contrast should mean something. Sure, the tests are important, even if the state accountability system exaggerates their significance (especially now that the performance of teachers is measured in large part on the test outcomes of learners), but they don't produce lasting memories.

I don't dismiss the role of state tests. The data offers valuable reference points upon which we can design responsive strategies to promote success in learning. It's just that the means are appearing to be digested by the ends, rather than justifying them. I recognize that school isn't all about memories, and memories won't lead to jobs and security,.... I get that. But instructional integrity seems to be eviscerated by the growing demands of testing. I liken it to a regimen some adopt when trying to lose weight. You can weigh yourself every hour of the day but that alone does not produce weight loss. Measuring is helpful but distracting unless combined with changed behaviors involving nutrition, caloric intake, and exercise. So it is with these high stakes assessments. The more we administer, the less time we have for instruction.

Sadly, the more emphasis we place on tests and test prep, the less we devote toward opportunities like recess and field trips. Both of these experiences provide socialization and discovery. Recess becomes a bit of a social laboratory involving interactions, activities, exercise, cooperation, and engagement. Field trips supply many children with new experiences evolving from new venues that otherwise might escape the child.

This resurrects a favorite quote, from George Pickering:
"Not everything that can be counted counts; not everything that counts can be counted."

Think about that for a while...

Monday, June 4, 2012


When people impatiently cut corners instead of investing the time and effort to invent the future by looking around corners; when people value artificial as a quick substitute for original; when people would rather act like a loser to deceitfully win games rather than maintain honor and lose a game while acting like a winner - then we have people wandering around with a dysfunctional moral compass.
Here's a link (blow) to a great article from Sports Illustrated (To Cheat or Not to Cheat) that not only portrays both sides of this issue, but it also emphasizes the integrity of a man (Kevin Legault) who is the brother-in-law of the secretary I work with each day. This is much more than a sports story. In fact, if you confuse it as such you will unfortunately be dismissing a very revealing look at the lengths some people go in compromising their values in exchange for success, in sports, work, the classroom,... however hollow the actual triumph.

Despite not reaching his professional goal of becoming a major league baseball player, Kevin is certainly a major league person in my opinion. Kevin relied on PEM's (performance enhancing motivation) and opted to not surrender his principles, even if it meant not realizing his dream. The main character in the article decided to cast scruples aside in the quest for his dream and used PED's (performance enhancing drugs) to his advantage in the extremely competitive environment of professional baseball.

I love baseball and want my favorite baseball team (the Detroit Tigers) to win, but not at the expense of the integrity of the sport and the spirit of fair competition. I'll gladly root for the Kevin Legaults of the world. If I could pick a team, he'd be on it for sure.