Archives for category: Education Reform

Ever since Paul Tough popularized the idea of “grit” (e.g., determination, persistence) in his best-selling book How Children Succeed as the key ingredient in how children can succeed despite their circumstances, grit has entered educational discourse as a remedy for poverty. Character education, always an embedded staple in American education, went explicit. It was not enough to have a code of behavior or discipline, but it became a necessity in some schools to teach grit or character. KIPP, which was a major player in Tough’s book, became an exemplar for teaching “grit” to poor kids.


Jeff Snyder of Carleton College signed up to take a month-long online course with Dave Levin, the co-founder of KIPP to learn more about KIPP’s character education program. He was enthusiastic when he started but disillusioned by the time the course ended.


First, he asserts, despite the hoopla, no one really knows how to teach character or even grit.


Second, it may be impossible to teach character without any relationship to morality. The current approach, he writes, “unwittingly promotes an amoral and careerist “looking out for number one” point-of-view. Never before has character education been so completely untethered from morals, values, and ethics.” He suggests that fraudster Bernie Madoff had “grit,” he was certainly hard-working and persistent, but he lacked morality.


Third, this mode of education drastically constricts the overall purpose of education. Grit is supposed to facilitate college and career readiness. It is supposed to close the achievement gap. It is utilitarian. It drives towards certain goals and necessarily overlooks other goals of schooling. Snyder writes: “Gone are any traditional concerns with good and evil or citizenship and the commonweal. Gone, too, the impetus to bring youngsters into the fold of a community that is larger than themselves—a hopelessly outdated sentiment, according to the new character education evangelists. Virtue is no longer its own reward.”

Corporate reformers don’t like democracy. They don’t like elected school boards. They like mayoral control, state takeovers, all-charter districts, emergency managers. Anything but democracy.

In Dallas, the corporate reformers had the idea that the way to by-pass democracy was to utilize an obscure state law that would turn the district into a “home rule” district. Billionaire John Arnold helped to fund a group called “Save Our Public Schools,” which collected signatures for a referendum to create a home rule district. No one knows how it would have worked, but its backers were hoping it would turn Dallas into an all-charter district like Néw Orleans.

Despite the money and activity, the proposal simply died. With Dan Patrick, a voucher advocate as Lt. Governor, it is likely to come back again.

“Last night in Dallas, the commission that could have completely redesigned the city’s school system—handed control to the mayor, done away with elected trustees or rewritten teacher contracts—voted instead to call off its school reform experiment entirely.

“It’s a quiet end to a dramatic reform drive that began almost a year ago, when a group called Support Our Public Schools announced its plans to make the state’s second-largest school system into its first “home-rule charter” district.”

Investigative journalist George Joseph called this reform the “Big Dallas Plunder.” he says the business community wanted to open the charter floodgates. All those poor kids with low test scores, they thought, need charters, not small classes.

Alan Singer recognizes that Governor Andrew Cuomo doesn’t like teachers. In New York as in the rest of the nation, about 75% of teachers are women.


New York state has a highly educated teacher corps. 84% of the state’s teachers have master’s degrees, as compared to only 47% nationally.


But Cuomo keeps badgering teachers. He has gotten tough with teachers. He assumes that if students have low scores, it is because their teachers are no good. He wants more of them fired, using the test scores of their students to find out which need firing.


Singer wonders if Andrew Cuomo has a problem with educated professional women.

George Joseph is rapidly becoming one of our best education writers. In this article in The Nation, he shows how education “reform” is contributing to the “school to prison pipeline.” At best, he says, “no excuses” charter schools are preparing black students for low wage jobs.

He writes:

“As assistant professor of education Beth Sondel and education researcher Joseph L. Boselovic detailed in a Jacobin Magazine investigation, the “No Excuses” disciplinary approach, promoted by KIPP, the largest charter school chain in America, has transformed schools into totalizing carceral environments. Sondel and Boselovic write:

“There were, for example, specific expectations about where students should put their hands, which direction they should turn their heads, how they should stand, and how they should sit.… Silence seemed to be especially important in the hallways. At the sound of each bell at the middle school, students were expected to line up at “level zero” with their faces forward and hands behind their backs and, when given permission, step into the hallway and onto strips of black duct tape. There they waited for the command of an administrator: ‘Duke, you can move to your next class! Tulane, you can walk when you show me that you are ready!’ Students then marched until they reached the STOP sign on the floor, where their teacher checked them for hallway position before giving them permission to continue around the corner. Throughout this process, students moved counter-clockwise around the perimeter of the hallway (even if they were going to a classroom one door to the left).

“This extreme control over the movements of black students teaches them that they neither have, nor deserve control over their own bodies—a disturbing message to send in a country still shaped by the legacy of slavery. Furthermore, it perpetuates the normalization of surveillance and domination that law enforcement authorities inflict on black communities every day. Indeed, as the education writer Owen Davis points out, this “no excuses” disciplinary approach is a direct adaption by schools of the “broken windows” policing theory.”

Joseph relates that black students are beginning to protest the abuses that are inflicted on them by paternalistic authorities. That is an awakening that could change the narrative.

The Néw Yorker has a long article about Jeb Bush’s passionate interest in reforming public education by high-stakes testing, report cards, and privatization. Since his own children attend private schools, they are not affected by his grand redesign of public education.

To boil down his approach, regular public schools get loaded down with mandates and regulations. Charter schools are free of mandates and regulations, and many are run for profit. As public schools are squeezed by the competition with charters, they get larger classes and fewer programs. Meanwhile, Bush’s friends and allies get very rich.

It is a thorough story about Jeb Bush’s mission to turn public education into an industry.. One conclusion: If he were elected President, it would be the end of public education as we have known it for more than 150 years.

Congressman Chris Gibson (R-NY) and Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) are sponsoring legislation to banish federally mandated annual testing. Everyone who is opposed to the overuse and misuse of standardized testing should support this bill. It is called The Student Testing Improvement and Accountability Act.

To download a one page description, click here

For a one page letter Gibson and Sinema wrote to the other Congress people, click here

For the full text of the proposed bill, click here

For the official description from, including the list of co-sponsors, click here


This is one of Arthur Camins’ best articles about education and its ills. He poses the question of whether there is too much federal meddling in education or whether the federal role has been corrupted by pursuing the wrong goals.


He argues on behalf of a vigorous federal policy in education by referring to other areas–like Social Security, Medicare, and civil rights laws– where the only “fix” was federal policy. The reason that so many are now disgusted with federal policy in education is that the Obama administration has pursued the wrong goals and alienated its allies. Its reckless promotion of high-stakes testing and privatization has actually undermined the appropriate goal of federal policy, which should be equity and justice. The so-called “reform” movement relies on federal power to impose unpopular and failed mandates, wielding power in a manner which is inherently undemocratic and even anti-democratic.


Camins writes:


The problem over the last several decades of education policy is not overreach. It is that the federal government has been reaching for the wrong things in the wrong places with the wrong policy levers. For example, the nation has largely abandoned efforts to end segregation, arguably a prime driver of education inequity. The large-scale, community-building infrastructure and WPA and CCC employment efforts of the Great Depression have given way to the limited escape from poverty marketing pitch of education policy following the Great Recession. Whereas the 1960s War on Poverty targeted community resource issues, current education efforts target the behavior of individual teachers and pits parents against one in other in competition for admission to selected schools.


It cannot be repeated often enough: No country that has made significant improvement in its education system has done so through test-based accountability, teacher evaluation systems, charter schools or other school choice schemes. Improvements will only come from a national commitment to the values of equity, democracy, empathy, respect and community responsibility and by providing the funding for solutions based on those values.


Community and individualist values have been in tension throughout U.S. history. The diminishment of inequality that characterized the 1930s-1970s was the result of empathetic community responsibility values and strong unions. The growing inequality of the 1980s through the present is the result of the dominance of competitive individualist values. When inequity is the norm, policies that favor competition over collaboration turn potential allies into foes. When competition is the norm among parents for their children’s schools and among teachers for professional advancement, narrow individual solutions undermine broad systemic solutions.


The rhetoric to support current education reform is that individual poor families should have choices about which schools their children attend just like rich folks. Tellingly, this does not mean that rich and poor or black and white children attend the same schools. Instead, new charter schools are located in racially and economically isolated communities so that poor families compete with one another for admission. The result has been increased segregation with no effort to ameliorate resource allocation differences between wealthy and poor communities.


We do not need the federal government to specify teacher evaluation mechanisms, rank teacher preparation programs based on the test scores of their graduates students, fund privately operated charter schools or promote education entrepreneurs. The proper role for the federal government is to be the guarantor of justice and equity.


Unfortunately, given the Obama administration’s ties with the uber-wealthy philanthropists who believe in free-market competition, there is no hope that it will change direction. It will continue to push for the very policies that promote “competitive individualist values” and pay lip service to the “values of equity, democracy, empathy, respect and community responsibility.” We can only hope that the next administration changes course from the status quo. If not, the public will turn against the federal role altogether as the values of “justice and equity” are sacrificed and abandoned. And this will be the sad legacy of the Obama administration.

I don’t know how I missed this article when it appeared in The New York Times. It was written by Helen Gao, and it supports what Yong Zhao has written about the highly inegalitarian consequences of China’s test-driven culture.

Whenever you hear someone talking about high standards and rigorous exams as drivers of equity, please question that assumption. Please understand that standards and tests are meant to discriminate among those at the top and those who are not. They do not raise test scores, they measure the ability to answer test questions correctly. The haves dominate the top, while the children of have-nots cluster at the bottom. This is true on every standardized test in every nation. Gradations in test scores will determine the future for many.

She writes that the best and the brightest students are admitted to two elite universities:

“They are destined for bright futures: In a few decades, they will fill high-powered positions in government and become executives in state banks and multinational companies. But their ever-expanding career possibilities belie the increasingly narrow slice of society they represent. The percentage of students at Peking University from rural origins, for example, has fallen to about 10 percent in the past decade, down from around 30 percent in the 1990s. An admissions officer at Tsinghua University told a reporter last year that the typical undergraduate was “someone who grew up in cities, whose parents are civil servants and teachers, go on family trips at least once a year, and have studied abroad in high school.”

“China’s state education system, which offers nine years of compulsory schooling and admits students to colleges strictly through exam scores, is often hailed abroad as a paradigm for educational equity. The impression is reinforced by Chinese students’ consistently stellar performance in international standardized tests. But this reputation is built on a myth.

“While China has phenomenally expanded basic education for its people, quadrupling its output of college graduates in the past decade, it has also created a system that discriminates against its less wealthy and well-connected citizens, thwarting social mobility at every step with bureaucratic and financial barriers.

“A huge gap in educational opportunities between students from rural areas and those from cities is one of the main culprits. Some 60 million students in rural schools are “left-behind” children, cared for by their grandparents as their parents seek work in faraway cities. While many of their urban peers attend schools equipped with state-of-the-art facilities and well-trained teachers, rural students often huddle in decrepit school buildings and struggle to grasp advanced subjects such as English and chemistry amid a dearth of qualified instructors.”

Anthony Cody was stunned to be rejected by the Education Writers Association when he applied for an award. Only last year, he won a first prize from EWA for his writing. But now he no longer meets their criteria as an independent journalist.


Cody tells the story:


The Education Writers Association has decided that, although I was awarded a first prize for my writing just last year, I am no longer permitted to submit my work for consideration for future awards. Leaders of the organization have decided that I do not meet their definition of a journalist. Investigative blogger and author Mercedes Schneider recently applied for membership, and was likewise denied on the same grounds.


I think this decision constricts the vital public discourse, and excludes those of us not on the payroll of mainstream corporate media.


The EWA has two forms of membership; Journalist and Community. I joined the EWA when I was still working full time as a teacher coach for the Oakland schools. Since writing about education was not my primary occupation, I signed up as a “community member.” This status did not prevent me from submitting my work for their award competition, or from participating in their events, though as a non-journalist I was not allowed to pose questions at their events.


In 2010, my work was awarded a “special citation” by EWA. Two years ago, my dialogue with the Gates Foundation won second prize. Last year, I was awarded first prize in the opinion category for my posts about the Common Core.


Neither Cody nor Schneider met the EWA requirements for being an “independent journalist,” but Cody notes that other bloggers who are paid to blog do qualify under EWA guidelines.


He adds:


Both Schneider and myself are completely independent. Unlike many of those accepted as journalists by EWA, neither of us are funded by major corporate philanthropies that actively seek to shape news coverage. Nor are we paid by unions or any other organization, for profit or non-profit….


One of the roles my blog has played is to challenge the Obama administration publicly, in a way few mainstream media outlets choose to do. When President Obama criticized his own policies back in 2011, it was my blog that obliged the Department of Education to respond, as covered a few days later in the New York Times. In fact, the headline of that piece was “Bloggers Challenge President on Standardized Testing.” And again, on December 19, my blog challenged President Obama’s assertion, at his press conference, that test scores for African American and Latino students are on the rise in states that have initiated reform. This is the sort of general statement that is left un-interrogated by most mainstream reporters, and thus becomes part of the received wisdom, even though it is contradicted by a mountain of evidence.


My blog, and those of many other education bloggers, are truly independent of the subtle and not so subtle controls exerted by employers and publishers. Where else but from independent bloggers like Bob Braun in Newark, New Jersey, would we get hard hitting investigations of corruption there? How else, but as a result of the relentless digging of Mercedes Schneider, would we get the real truth about the origins of the Common Core? You will not find members of any Gates-funded education “journalism” projects doing such investigations.


It could be that the EWA is embarrassed by the active presence of bloggers such as myself in their events and in their awards. I recently published a book that systematically challenges the Gates Foundation, and, not surprisingly, the Gates Foundation is a leading sponsor of the EWA.


But the functioning of a democracy requires a free and independent press. While the EWA asserts that it “retains sole editorial control over its programming and content,” the fact that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is #1 on its list of current sustaining partners is hard to overlook.


Cody prominently features this quote from cartoonist Robert Crumb, who now lives in France and was responding to the killing of cartoonists in Paris:


You don’t have journalists [in America] anymore, what they have is public relations people. Two-hundred and fifty thousand people in public relations. And a dwindling number of actual reporters and journalists.


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