Archives for category: Pennsylvania

Gary Rubinstein knows reformers better than most people. He started his career in Teach for America in Houston in the early 1990s and eventually became a career math teacher in New York City. He is one of the most perceptive critics of reform, having started in the early days of the movement.

In this post, he deconstructs the boasts of Kevin Huffman about the Achievement School District in Tennessee. Huffman is now trying to export this model to other states, despite its failure thus far to achieve its goals. Rubinsteinreviews the record of the ASD and finds it mixed at best:

“Just by the numbers, the results are truly mixed. Of the original 6 ASD schools that are currently in their third year under the ASD, two schools have improved, two have stayed about the same, and two have gotten worse.” Some success.

“ASD tries to put all the positive spin they can on their results, but the thing that they try not to mention is that in this past year the ASD got the lowest possible score on their ‘growth’ metric, a 1 out of 5. In Tennessee they take their ‘growth’ scores very seriously. They have been experimenting with this kind of metric for over twenty years and they base school closing decisions on it and also teacher evaluations. So it is hypocritical, though not surprising, that Huffman fails to mention that the ASD, on average, got the lowest possible score on this last year, and instead they focus on the two schools that have shown test score improvements.”

Rubinstein writes:

“There is absolutely no reason why Kevin Huffman should be given the opportunity to pitch his ideas to the Pennsylvania senate or in the media over there. It is like a state trying to improve their economy and asking for guidance from a man who got rich by winning the lottery. Huffman is a person who knows very little about education, but who has been very lucky to get to where he is. He taught first grade for two years, spent a bunch of years working for Teach For America, got appointed as Tennessee education commissioner mainly because of his famous ex-wife, and only managed to keep his job for three years before basically getting run out of town. He has gotten credit for the 4th and 8th grade NAEP gains between 2011 and 2013, but has taken none of the blame for the lack of progress for 12 graders or for the recent drops in the Tennessee State reading test scores. This is a new kind of phenomenon, the edu-celebrity who rises to power, leaves after a few years having accomplished very little, and then making a living as a consultant. Some gig.”

Kevin Huffman, former state education leader in Tennessee, came to Pennslvania to sell the glories of corporate reform as practiced in Tennessee. Peter Greene recounts his claims here.

Huffman wanted particularly to sell the virtues of the Tennessee Achievement School District, which gathers the state’s lowest performing schools into a group, eliminates local control, and converts them to privately managed charters.

As Greene shows, the ASD in Tennessee has been a bust so far.

“So first, strip local school boards and voters of authority over their own schools. Second, allow a mixture of innovation and stripping teachers of job security and pay. The stated plan in Tennessee was that the bottom 5% of schools would move into the top 25% within five years. Doesn’t that all sound great? But hey– how is it working out in Tennessee?

“That depends (surprise) on who is crunching which numbers, but even the state’s own numbers gave the Tennessee ASD the lowest possible score for growth.

“In fact, Huffman forgot to mention the newest “technique” proposed to make ASD schools successful– allow them to recruit students from outside the school’s geographical home base. This is the only turnaround model that really has been successful across the nation– in order to turn a school around, you need to fill it with different students.”

Greene read Huffman’s op-Ed with advice to Pennsylvania

Huffman wrote:

“When I spoke with Pennsylvania state senators last week about school turnaround work, one senator asked me directly, “When you created the Achievement School District, were you worried that it was too risky?” I responded, “The greatest risk would be to do nothing.”

Greene comments:

“Pretending that any senator actually answered that question, the answer is still dumb. Your child is lying on the sidewalk, bleeding and broken after being struck by a car. A guy in a t-shirt runs up with an axe and makes like he’s about to try to lop off your child’s legs. “What the hell are you doing?” you holler, and t-shirt guy replies, “Well, the greatest risk would be to do nothing.”

“Doing Nothing is rarely as great a risk as Doing Something Stupid.

“Achievement School Districts are dumb ideas that offer no educational benefits and run contrary to the foundational principles of democracy in this country. They are literally taxation without representation. Huffman should move on along to his next gig and leave Pennsylvania alone.”

When the idea of charters was first floated in the late 1980s, advocates offered a simple promise: Give us autonomy, and we will be accountable.

That was then, this is now.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association estimates that public schools lose $1.3 billion each year to the state’s 177 charters. It filed a “Right to Know” request seeking information about how charters spend public money on such matters as salaries, consultants, advertising, rentals, etc.

A charter spokesman said the PSBA request was “frivolous.” Thus far, not a single charter has responded to the request for financial data.

“We get hammered over spending, but think about charter schools – there’s little if any fiscal accountability,” said Lawrence Feinberg, a Haverford School District board member who heads the Keystone State Education Coalition, a grassroots public education advocacy group made up of school board members and administrators.

“Feinberg cited the state’s largest charter school, the Chester Community Charter School in Delaware County, which has a management contract with a firm headed by wealthy Montgomery County lawyer and political donor Vahan Gureghian.

“You go find out and tell me how much teachers get paid and how much Mr. Gureghian makes in profit,” said Feinberg. He also raised questions over how much charters spend on the ad campaigns that attract students away from traditional public schools.”


The Pennsylvania School Boards Association has filed a “right to know” action to gain access to the financial records of the state’s charter schools, including Cybercharters.

Charters were supposed to be more accountable and transparent than public schools, but they are neither. Some charter operators have made millions of dollars in profits from taxpayer dollars, with neither accountability nor transparency.

“The Pennsylvania School Boards Association today said it has filed Right-to-Know requests with charter and cyber charter school operators asking for financial information about their schools.

“The requested items include advertising costs, contracts with private management companies, advanced academic courses offered, salary and compensation information for all 180 brick and mortar and cyber charter schools in the state.

“The Right-to-Know requests also ask for documents related to leases and real estate and donation information from foundations or educational improvement organizations.”

“Nathan Mains, PSBA executive director, said the information being sought will help his association and the school districts it represents to better understand how charter schools operate and to provide transparency to taxpayers on charter school spending.

“For years charter proponents have criticized public schools claiming they don’t understand how charter operators work or the costs and benefits of charters,” Mr. Mains said in a press release

“Another purpose to filing the Right-to-Know requests is for the PSBA “to make sure public funds are being spent in the best interest of Pennsylvania children,” Mr. Mains said.

“Tuition for charter school students comes from the coffers of their home public school districts. The PSBA release said last year nearly $1.3 billion was paid in charter school tuition.”

The organization representing the state’s charter schools scoffed at the request and said the PSBA has all the information it needs.

Most of the time, we engage in covil discourse, even with people whom we know are rigid ideologues whose minds are blted closed. but every once in a while, someone opens a window and yells out, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.” And they say what’s really on their mind.

Rep. Brian Sims did that in Pennsylvania recently. He called out the conservative Comminwealth Foundation after he received a mailing from it. He wrote on his Facebook page:

“See, I already know that you are all racist, homophobic, sexist, classist, ableist, anti-American, bigots whose single driving motivation is to secure the wealth of your multimillionaire donors at the expense of every single working person and family in the Commonwealth. See, I told you I already get it so you don’t need to waste money sending me proof…actually go ahead and waste that money!”

Blogger-teacher Steven M. Singer here reveals the veil of secrecy that testing corporations drape around their product.

He writes:


What you are about to read may be a criminal act.

I may have broken the law by putting this information out there.

Edward Snowden leaked data about civilian surveillance. Chelsea Manning released top secret military documents.

And me? I’m leaking legal threats and intimidation students and teachers are subject to during standardized testing.

Not exactly a federal crime is it?

No. I’m asking. Is it?

Because teachers are being fired and jailed. Students are being threatened with litigation.

All because they talked about standardized tests.

The US government mandates public school children be subjected to standardized assessments in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Most schools test much more than that – even as early as kindergarten.

And since all of these assessments are purchased from private corporations, the testing material is ideological property. The students taking these exams – regardless of age – are no longer treated as children. They are clients entering into a contract.

He cites the copyright warning that students are required to read before they take the Pennsylvania tests. If they photograph or reproduce or copy any part of the test they may be find no less than $750 or as much as $30,000. Wow! Not too many children have that kind of dough to pay for a copyright violation.

The state warns students that they are not allowed to discuss the test with others either during the test or after it.

Singer writes:

Sure kids shouldn’t talk about the test with classmates DURING the testing session. Obviously! But why can’t they discuss it after the test is over!?

Kids aren’t allowed to say to their friends, “Hey! Did you get the essay question about ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’?”

They aren’t allowed to discuss how difficult it was or compare how each of them answered the questions?

These are children. If you think they aren’t talking, then you just don’t know kids. You don’t know people!

And why shouldn’t they talk about it? They just shared a stressful, common experience. Who wouldn’t want to compare it to what others went through so as to decide how your experience rates? Did you answer the questions well or not? Did you get a more difficult question than others? Did the thing that struck you as odd also hit others the same way?

Personally, I do not consider talking like this to be cheating. It’s just human nature.

He goes on to discuss the constraints imposed on teachers.

He asks:

Therefore, I must ask an important question of you, dear reader: Did I violate these rules by writing this very article? Is the piece you are reading right now illegal?

And he wonders: Why is the state exercising its powers to protect the testing corporations? Wouldn’t it be nice if the state were protecting its students and teachers?

Yinzercation–the Pennsylvania blog written by education activist Dr. Jessie Ramey–posts here a brilliant statement about why she is opting out on religious grounds. Under state law, she is not required to state her beliefs, but she does. I hope you will read it all.


Here is an excerpt from a powerful post explaining Dr. Ramey’s religious beliefs:


The inherent worth and dignity of every person.


Every child is valuable – priceless – and has the human right to a rich, full education. Respecting the inherent worth of every child also means treating each student as an individual, and not a widget being produced in a factory. Standardized testing, tied to an ever more standardized common core curriculum, sorts students into categories (“below basic,” “basic,” etc.) There are serious consequences to this sorting and labeling (see below), but the underlying premise of this standardized high-stakes-testing is to compare and rank students – not to support the individual learning of each student.


This is clearly evident when schools use standardized, normed tests, which force all students into a bell curve, guaranteeing that a large proportion of the children will fail. To get that nice bell shape of test results, with exactly half of the children falling on the “below average” side of the curve, the tests are carefully designed with purposefully misleading questions. For instance, test makers will use tricky sound-alike answers to intentionally trip up English language learners, or culturally specific clues most easily decoded only by students from wealthy families. Pittsburgh is subjecting students to the normed GRADE test not once, but three times a year (a result of accepting state money that came with testing strings attached). Teachers have been reporting the problematic GRADE test questions for years, but the test-maker has not changed them because this “assessment” requires a set failure rate. In what way does this kind of standardized testing respect the inherent worth of our students? When students’ test scores are then displayed for all to see on “data walls” (an increasingly common practice in our schools), how does this respect the dignity of each child?


Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.


While advocates claim that high-stakes-testing will hold teachers and schools accountable for student learning and therefore promote equity, it often does the exact opposite by reinforcing inequality. High-stakes-testing labels our schools as “failures,” but never results in additional resources to actually help kids. Instead, “failing” schools are often targeted for closure. When you look at the pattern of school closures across the country – including here in Pittsburgh – you can see that districts have closed schools in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods, displacing some students multiple times. Our communities of color have been harmed the most, with places like Oakland and Hazelwood turned into education deserts without a single neighborhood public school.


Schools labeled as “failing” on the basis of student test scores are often targeted with other “reforms” that rarely help children. Our own beloved Colfax provides an excellent example of the “disruptive innovation” imposed on supposedly failing schools. Nine years ago when our family first started at Colfax, its large achievement gap had recently earned it a designation as a “turnaround school.” The district fired every single teacher and the principal then handpicked an entirely new teaching staff. The idea, of course, was that we had to get rid of the “bad” teachers and hire only “great” teachers and that would solve the problem of low test scores. Fast forward almost a decade and you can see that this didn’t work: Colfax still has one of the largest achievement gaps in the city (which is really an opportunity gap made highly visible by the presence of families from some of Pittsburgh’s wealthiest and poorest communities together in the same school).


During this same decade, Colfax students also experienced a relentless series of “reforms,” all aimed at increasing test scores. When we started, Colfax was a Spanish language immersion school, then we lost the extra language instruction to become an “Accelerated Learning Academy” focused on reading and math. We got an America’s Choice curriculum that was supposed to solve everything and added extra periods of reading. We got a longer school day and a longer school year. We got a Parent Engagement Specialist. Then we lost the curriculum, lost the extra time and days, and lost the parent specialist. The district changed to a 6 day week, so we could cram in extra reading and math periods, since these are tested subjects, resulting in a net loss of music, art, language, and physical education. With state budget cuts we lost more music and athletic programs, and we even lost our after school tutoring program aimed at those very students whose test scores continue to cause so much alarm. And class sizes ballooned to 30, sometimes 35 and more students.


Imposing constant churn and disruption on our most vulnerable students in the pursuit of higher test scores is not education justice. Worse, the relentless high-stakes-testing has served to re-inscribe inequality. We recently heard from Jon Parker, a Pittsburgh high school teacher, who explained what high-stakes-testing is doing to students’ sense of self worth in his classroom. Every year, he asks his students to write him a letter introducing themselves. In his class of struggling readers this year, over half of the students included their most recent PSSA rating as part of their introduction. They literally said things like, “I’ll work hard but I’m below basic.”

Tom Wolf, the newly elected Governor of Pennsylvania, may turn out to be true friend of public education. In a landscape crowded with foes of public education, like Scott Walker, John Kasich, Doug Ducey, Rick Scott, and Andrew Cuoo, this is quite a distinction for Governor Wolf.

After years of devastating cuts by Governor Tom Corbett, Wolf has vowed to fund public schools. He appointed a one-time rival, John Hanger, as secretary of policy and planning (Hanger is strongly pro-public schools).

Governor Wolf recently visited a public school in Philadelphia. At a time when so many governors have sworn their fealty to charter schools, it is refreshing to read about a governor who recognizes public responsibility for public schools.

John Hanger told the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and Industry that the Wolf administration would focus on public education and economic development in its spending plan.

Governor Tom Wolf could build a national reputation if he reverses the school privatization and defusing of public schools that Corbett encouraged .

Peter Greene lives in Pennsylvania, where the previous governor, Tom Corbett, and the Republican-controlled Legislature did their best to encourage corporate reform and to destroy public education. Corbett welcomed for-profit cyber-charters and every other kind of charter, and he slashed the budget for public education. The result can be seen starkly in Philadelphia, where many public schools have been replaced by charters, and the remaining public schools are stripped of programs, resources, and services.


Here he explains that it is not just urban districts like Philadelphia and York that are being cut down by “reformers,” but not-very-wealthy rural districts like the one he teaches in. People blame their local school boards, but even the most fiscally responsible local boards are falling victim to decisions made by the legislature.


He writes:


The closing of schools is rampant in my part of PA, and we aren’t alone. We’re a region of not-very-wealthy rural districts, but not-very-wealthy urban districts like Philly and York have also cut schools like a machete in a bamboo forest.


It is not a matter of declining student population, and it is not a matter of districts falling on tough times. It’s a widespread financial crisis, and it’s manufactured.


How to manufacture a statewide financial crisis.


Cut state funding. This puts the making-up-the-difference pressure on local taxpayers.


Take a ton of money away from public schools and give it to charters.


Create a huge pension funding crisis. This is its own kind of challenge, but the quick explanation is this– pre-2008, invest in really awesome stuff, and when that all tanks and districts suddenly have huge payments to make up, tell the districts they can just wait till later and hope for magic financial fairies to fix it. It is now later, there are no fairies, and a small district with an $18 million budget is looking at pension payments that go up $500K every year.


Oh, and pass a law that says districts can’t raise taxes more than a smidge in any given year….


The end result?


School districts are looking down the barrel of million-plus-dollar deficits. The two deficits for which I have now been a power point audience can both be entirely explained by the formula:


Charter Payments + Pension Payments + Other Tiny Obscure Cuts = District Deficit


In other words, a district that had a fiscally responsible year last year, that didn’t do anything crazy or odd or unusual and just left everything alone when planning for this year– that district is still facing huge deficits in their current budgeting cycle, unrelated to any choices that they made in managing their own local district.


Funny, last time I looked, it was states that have the primary responsibility in their constitutions for maintaining a “thorough and efficiency” (or some variation thereof) system of public education. But the legislators are passing mandates that shift the burden to local districts and sitting by while public schools are closed.


Is this part of a plan to privatize public education? What do you think?





The “tax credit” program in Pennsylvania is a backdoor way of spending public money for children who enroll in private and religious schools.

What does the State Constitution say?

Pennsylvania Constitution Article III Section § 15.

Public school money not available to sectarian schools.

No money raised for the support of the public schools of the Commonwealth shall be appropriated to or used for the support of any sectarian school.

“Religious Freedom
Section 3.

“All men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences; no man can of right be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship or to maintain any ministry against his consent; no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience, and no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious establishments or modes of worship.”

This latter provision has been cited by the state courts to prohibit public funding of religious schools.

Isn’t it funny how Republicans claim to be in favor of strict construction of the Constitution, except when they don’t?

Isn’t it funny how so many Republican state legislators belong to ALEC, which is trying to obliterate local school boards and local control.


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