Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The best and worst education events of 2014

It’s been a very eventful year for those of us who advocate for better schools – across the country, but especially here in New York.  Below I focus on some of the best and worst education developments from the perspective of someone who believes that the  corporate reform agenda of privatization, high-stakes testing, data collection and online learning ignores research, disrespects parents’ priorities about the kind of education they want for their kids, and treats children not as the complex, many faceted individuals they are, but as interchangeable widgets to be assessed, ranked and controlled.

Best of 2014

    1.  InBloom closed its doors.  

I     I started  blogging about this $100 million datapalooza project of the Gates Foundation in August 2011, when it was still called the Shared Learning Collaborative. Though neither the Gates Foundation nor NY state were willing to “share” much information about their plans with parents, the more I learned the more distressed I became at the huge risks to student privacy and   security this project represented.  With the help of Diane Ravitch’s blog, and Stephanie Simon, then a reporter at Reuters and now at Politico, parent activists throughout the nation whose children's most sensitive data was to be shared with inBloom and had been told nothing about this were alerted.  Their protests in turn persuaded every state participating to pull out, one by one. (Here’s a  timeline of events.) Here in New York, the battle was fiercest – and it took a law passed by the Legislature at the end of March to block Commissioner King from disclosing the highly sensitive information of the entire state’s public school population to inBloom, and via inBloom with three data dashboard companies. 

New York was the last of the corporation’s customers to pull out, and the company closed its doors in April.  Yet as a result of the inBloom controversy, parents were made aware of the way schools, districts and states were already sharing personal student data with a wide variety of contractors, vendors and other third parties, with little or no oversight.  In a way, the arrogance of the Gates Foundation and their refusal to listen to our concerns did us a favor by helping to kickstart  a national debate on student privacy that has not yet abated.  

credit: Politico
    After inBloom’s demise, we joined with many of the activists who had fought inBloom in their own states to form a new national organization called the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, to provide information to parents on the rights they still have to protect their children’s privacy– many of which are being ignored by schools and districts, as well as what questions they should be asking their schools and vendors.  We are also dedicated towards closing the loopholes in the federal law known as FERPA.  Our website is at, our FB page is here, our twitter handle is @parents4privacy, and we encourage you to take a look and join us.

  2. A national revolt against the defective Common Core standards and the expansion of high-stakes testing erupted, with 60,000 students opting out of state exams in NY last spring alone.  Because of fierce public pushback, many Governors have begun to question their support for the flawed standards and several have withdrawn from the multi-state testing consortia,  designed to collect and share personal data in much the same way that inBloom intended.  This grassroots rebellion has been led by advocates from the right and the left, but mostly by parents who have no particular political affiliation at all -- but are alarmed at how their children are being stressed and their education undermined by excessive test prep, deficient curricula and flawed exams.  National polls also show rapidly growing opposition to the Common Core and high stakes testing – which along with data collection and online learning are the centerpieces of the Gates-funded corporate-backed agenda.

3. NY Education Commissioner John King resigned.  
As I observed at the time, King is the most
unpopular commissioner in the history of NY State and showed little or no respect for parents, teachers or student privacy.  King’s departure capped a year in which many other controversial corporate reformers announced their departure, including NJ Commissioner Chris Cerf, Oklahoma’s education chief Janet Barresi (who lost re-election), Idaho’s Tom Luna,  Tennessee Commissioner Kevin Huffman and Los Angeles Superintendent John Deasy. Starting January 1, there will be more than twice as many “emeritus” former education state heads as members of Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change (nine) than current office holders (four.) In addition, Michelle Rhee announced she was quitting as CEO of StudentsFirst, the organization she started in 2010; at the same time, her organization was forced to radically retrench and close chapters around the country.  Similarly, Teach for America eliminated its NY office and revealed it is finding it more difficult to recruit candidates, because of the controversies around its role in school reform.

credit: Rob Tornoe
4. Even corporate reformers admitted that the growing charter sector is a vampire with little accountability, draining resources and the higher-achieving students from our public schools.  One  report after another was released, showing massive charter corruption and mismanagement.   Macke Raymond, the head of the pro-privatization research group CREDO that is funded by the Walton Family Foundation, admitted that market-based competition in the form of charters does not lead to improvements in the public schools: “I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career. That’s my academic focus for my work. And (education) is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work.” 

Kaya Henderson, Michelle Rhee’s chosen successor as DC Chancellor, said about charter schools, “Either we want neighborhood schools or we want cannibalism, but you can’t have both.”  Cami Anderson,  the Superintendent who designed the disastrous “One Newark” plan to close neighborhood public schools and open charters in their stead, explained why  test scores have dropped during her administration: “We’re losing the higher-performing students to charters, and the needs [in district schools] have gotten larger….[there are public schools] where there are 35 percent of students with special needs…I’m not saying they are out there intentionally skimming, but all of these things are leading to a higher concentration of the neediest kids in fewer [public] schools.”

5. New organizations have sprung up and others have grown stronger in opposition to the corporate reform
status quo agenda – including Network for Public Education (founded by Diane Ravitch and on whose board I sit) which had our first national conference last spring and will have our next one in Chicago April 25 – 26  (proposals for workshops accepted now.)  Other groups advocating for progressive and evidence-based school reforms include the fearless Badass Teachers Association, Save our Schools, United Opt out, Parents Across America , and our state coalition, NY State Allies for Public Education.   All these groups are working together – with authentic grassroots support as opposed to the astroturf organizations bankrolled by billionaires -- to counter the corporate attempt to dismantle public education and instead to strengthen our public schools, by means of evidence-based reforms.

Worst of 2014

   1. In NY, the hegemony of the hedge funders continues unabated.  They provided millions in donations to Governor Cuomo, who won re-election, though the election was closer than had been anticipated and his vote total was the lowest for Governor in at least forty years.   The hedge-fund pro-charter lobby was also the biggest contributors to the State Senate elections, and their money helped  elect a majority of GOP members.  Though these billionaires’ main issue is pushing for the further expansion of charter schools and the hostile takeover of public education, the words “charter schools” were never mentioned in the ads they ran, as their candidates campaigned in swing districts where charters are a vehemently opposed.  These privateers also persuaded our Governor to push through a new law as part of the state budget that undermines mayoral control – which they supported when Bloomberg was in office but not when NYC voters elected a mayor who did not support the push towards privatization and favoring charters over public schools.  The new law requires the city to provide free space to any new or expanded charter school going forward – which will further overcrowd our exceedingly overcrowded schools or force city taxpayers to spend millions leasing them private space.   

2.   2. The new administration of Bill de Blasio did little to oppose this new law, and
his appointed Chancellor just approved the co-location of 12 new charter schools in existing school buildings, which will further deprive NYC students of their right to be provided with a well-rounded education with reasonable class sizes.  Despite numerous promises when he ran for Mayor, neither de Blasio nor Chancellor Farina have shown any interest in reducing class size, the number one priority of NYC parents.  The union contract they negotiated eliminated the only chance for struggling students to be taught in small groups, and did not address class size – despite the fact that union contractual limits in NYC schools have not been lowered in forty years. The administration also ignored a letter signed by 73 professors of education and psychology, urging the reduction in class sizes lest the benefits of their initiatives for expanded preK, community schools and special education inclusion be undermined.   Every time the need to reduce class size was brought up in town hall meetings – as it was by parents at least six times – the Chancellor dismissed their concerns.

      3. The de Blasio administration and Chancellor Farina also showed little interest in tackling the worsening crisis of school overcrowding -- made worse by the new charter law.  There are many communities in NYC that have waited for a decade for a new public school in their neighborhood, and thousands of city students continue to sit in trailers, on waiting lists for Kindergarten, and in overcrowded public schools with huge class sizes. Yet the  capital plan for school construction the city introduced in February and re-submitted last month with only minor changes would build less than one third of the additional seats needed to alleviate existing overcrowding and address future enrollment growth.  This is yet another area in which the administration has made no improvement from the last one – despite our report, Space Crunch, and another from the NYC Comptroller showing a crisis in school overcrowding that is steadily getting worse.   And the DOE officials continue to put out fake data, under counting the number of high school students sitting in trailers by many thousands.

4.    4. The Vergara decision in California and a copycat lawsuit in New York grabbed the media’s attention and sucked up all the oxygen in the room, focusing on the red herring of eliminating teacher tenure as the solution to struggling schools, rather than proven reforms like class size reduction, which could help lower the high levels of teacher attrition in these schools.  Campbell Brown stepped into the spotlight, replacing Michelle Rhee as the media spokesperson for the “blame teachers first” crowd.  Time magazine with an incendiary cover jumped on the bandwagon – though the story inside was not nearly as bad – and together, these high-profile cases managed to divert attention from the issues that really matter.

credit: Data Quality Campaign
5.    The barrage of technobabble and digital learning bilge continued unabated – despite ANY evidence that it works to help kids learn.  Even the US Department of Education – which despite being a huge booster of technology, asking superintendents to sign a “future ready” pledge that they will devote funds to online learning,  found in its meta-analysis that for grades K-12 , policymakers “lack scientific evidence of [its] effectiveness.” 

Credit: Lindamarie @Linda1746

Each online program or gizmo is hyped as magically effective by the ed tech scam artists-- until research unmasks it as fatally flawed.  First DreamBox and Rocketship charters' version of blended learning were praised to the skies, until both were shown   to be mirages. The Year of the MOOC is followed by the reality of huge MOOC drop-out rates.  Despite the Amplify fiasco in North Carolina and the continuing Ipad scandal in LA (which contributed to John Deasy's departure, see above), kids continue to be hooked up to devices with data-mining software of doubtful value - with no attention paid to the fact that this is entirely antithetical to the critical thinking and creativity that corp reformers are supposed to support.  The trend towards massive amounts of personal data collection, data tracking and data sharing continues –- as encouraged by the US Department of Education and the Gates Foundation  -- with no proven benefits, but huge risks to privacy (check out the long string of hacking disasters this year  too numerous to recount).  Though amassing all this data is repeatedly plugged as "empowering teachers"  by the likes of Joel Klein of Amplify and Gates-funded organizations such as the Data Quality Campaign, teachers themselves say they are overwhelmed by all useless data, as in this eloquent post by teacher Susan DuFresne:
The corporate reformers have sucked the life out of teaching and learning. The real purpose of education is lost in a blizzard of data – numbers entered onto a rubric to become bits of data – trillions of 0’s and 1’s about each child are flying at high speed, tracked and collecting in data banks like so many feet of snow to be mined for corporate profits – icy cold they create systems of punishment as dangerous crevices – an abyss of corporate created failure – a place devoid of all humanity for children and teachers to try to traverse.

Of course, the real motivation  of these edupreneurs is to further inflate the  eight billion dollar ed tech market -  which continues to expand every year, taking resources away from schools and the kids who need authentic learning the most in the form of human feedback from their teachers in small classes, but are denied their right so that companies can make profits off imposing an inhumane system of mechanized depersonalized learning instead.

Monday, December 29, 2014

2014: a watershed year for Class Size Matters and our end-of-the year appeal

In several ways, 2014 was a watershed year for Class Size Matters.  We led the fight for student privacy and defeated inBloom Inc.

We were the first to draw attention to this massive $100 million student data repository in August of 2011, designed to collect maximum amounts of children’s highly sensitive information and share it with numerous third party vendors  without parental notification or consent.  We held press conferences, rallies, town hall meetings, and spoke at forums over the course of the next two and half years.  We reached out to parent activists in the eight other inBloom states, and every state that had been cited as participating in this project pulled out, one by one.  

After the NY Legislature passed a law blocking its attempt to access students’ personal data, the company closed its doors last spring.  Please consider giving Class Size Matters a tax-deductible donation so our work can continue, as we have learned that inBloom is just the tip of the iceberg. 

The inBloom controversy kick-started a national debate on student privacy which has not yet abated.  Parents and other concerned citizens throughout the country discovered for the first time that children’s privacy and safety were at risk through excessive and widespread data-mining, collection and sharing, enabled and encouraged by the weakening of the federal law known as FERPA.  The expansion of data disclosure has also occurred as a result of the efforts of for-profit vendors to gain a share of the rapidly growing market for educational software, now estimated at more than $7.9 billionwith the goal of expanding instruction through computers rather than actual human interaction.

In addition, states are creating cradle-to-the-grave data systems, tracking students from birth onwards by amassing personal information from many governmental agencies and higher education institutions.   There are literally thousands of data-mining programs now being used in schools, without proper oversight or control.  As a result of the growing awareness of the risks involved, twenty states passed new student privacy laws this year, including New York.

Last summer, we formed a new national organization called the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, dedicated to providing information on how parents can best protect their children’s privacy, and we are working to minimize student data mining, collecting, and disclosure without consent.   Our website at has fact sheets and opt out forms available.

We also continued our analysis, outreach and advocacy on issues related to class size.  Last spring, we published an authoritative report, Space Crunch, on the worsening overcrowding crisis and how the NYC’s plan to build new schools will produce less than one third the seats required, given existing overcrowding, rising enrollment, and the need to reduce class size.  We also sounded the alarm about the continuing trend of growing class sizes -- and how more than 360,000 NYC students are now crammed into classes of thirty or larger.

This fall, 73 professors of education and psychology cited these figures in a letter to Chancellor FariƱa, warning her that these excessive class sizes will undermine the benefits of the DOE’s initiatives of expanded preK, inclusion of special education students, and community schools.

We provided testimony to the City Council on the negative impact of large classes on students with disabilities, and our testimony on charters, called Six Charter Myths, went viral.  We sent letters to the Chancellor on the need to provide class size and overcrowding data on the School Progress Reports, and calling for an immediate moratorium on any more school co-locations until all public school students are provided with a quality education, including smaller classes.

Diane Ravitch has called our NYC education list serve “terrific and informative,” and our blog, NYC Public School Parents, continues to be a valuable source of news and commentary.  Our Class Size Matters newsletter now has more than six thousand subscribers. We were quoted more than 100 times in the mainstream media this year, on issues ranging from student privacy, class size, and school overcrowding, to the corporate agenda of excessive testing, digital learning, charter schools and the Common Core.

But we rely on your contributions to keep going.  Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to Class Size Matters – as much as you can afford by clicking here, sending a check to the address below, or going to our website at

We still have so much to achieve before our children are provided with the privacy and individualized attention they need.

Happy holidays and thanks as ever for your support.

Leonie Haimson, Executive Director 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Joel Klein's failed record as NYC Chancellor

Whatever favorable reviews Joel Klein has gotten for his new book, "Lessons of Hope" have mostly been written by people who did not experience his failed policies as NYC Chancellor.  If you want to read illuminating accounts, I recommend Diane Ravitch, Helen Zelon in the Observer, or Gary Rubinstein's blog, all of whom offer important reflections on Klein's record. 

I could write about the tremendous waste and corruption of the many multi-million dollar contracts he handed off so recklessly, for example to Wireless Generation for ARIS and/or Future Technology Associates.  I could write about his obvious mismanagement style, re-organizing the governance structure continually, creating more chaos and confusion than the steady hand the school district needed and deserved.  I could also write about his evident contempt for parents, teachers, and the law itself, with one of his favorite phrases when challenged being, "So sue me." 

But in the below I focus on the evidence that Klein himself would recognize as damning if he were to be intellectually consistent in his emphasis on test scores as the best measure of accountability:  the fact that NYC made less progress than any other city as measured by results on the federal assessments known as the NAEPs, except for Cleveland, over the course of his administration.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Merryl Tisch, the State Education Dept and their epic fail when it comes to charter expansion

Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the Regents, has proclaimed in recent days that she believes in expansion of charter schools. On a Nov. 16 radio show, she said: “I personally am a great believer in charter schools ... I believe in opening them aggressively…I’d like to push more charter schools.”  She added that rather than support the Mayor’s preference for improving struggling schools rather than shutting them down, ”If we do not see movement on these schools, these lowest-performing schools, in terms of their ability to retool their workforce, by the spring, we will move to close them.”

The most recent Quinnipiac poll from November 19 revealed that 48 percent of NYC voters believe that the Mayor should freeze or reduce the number of charter schools in NYC, while only 43 percent think that the number should be increased  – despite millions spent by the deep-pocketed charter lobby on marketing and television ad campaigns. Fifty percent of voters believe charters should pay rent if housed in a public school vs. 41 percent who oppose this.  Sadly, both the authority to decide whether charter schools should expand and whether they should pay rent have been taken out of the Mayor’s hands, as the power to determine the number of charters rests with the Governor and the state Legislature. 

Moreover, the Governor already pushed through a new law last spring which obligated NYC to provide free space or pay their rent in private space for any new or expanding charter going forward – the only district in the state saddled with this burden, where we already suffer from the most overcrowded public schools and the highest real estate costs.  And now Cuomo, Tisch and their Wall St. buddies are working hard to raise the cap – especially in NYC, where we already have 197 charters, with 31 approved to open over the next two years, and 28 remaining under the cap. We are already paying $1.3 billion per year for these privately managed schools – and will likely be spending hundreds of millions of dollars more for their rent.  

On a subsequent radio show, Tisch said that the remaining open slots in the rest of the state should be shifted to NYC “where we are eager to have them.”  (See this radio interview, at about 32 minutes in. )  One wonders who is the “we” referred to here.  Is it the royal we, or does we mean the Wall St. pro-charter crowd with whom she socializes?  Clearly, it does not mean NYC voters or public school parents. 

Last spring, the hedge fund/charter lobby spent $5.95 million on ads to pressure the Mayor and the legislature to give free space to charters.  This fall, they spent another $4 million on TV ads to elect a Republican majority in the State Senate that would support raising the cap, without ever mentioning the word “charter schools” in their ads – because those words don’t go down so well in the swing districts of the candidates whose campaigns they were supporting. 

Today, there are only 51 charter schools in the rest of the state, and more than 100 slots remain under the cap outside NYC.  Suburban districts have mostly managed to resist the charter onslaught, but not here in NYC where the wealthy oligarchs have more influence with the Regents and the SUNY board than the hundreds of public school parents who appear at hearings in opposition. 

Last week, apparently as part of Tisch’s “aggressive” stance towards expanding charters, the Regents approved a Rochester charter school founded by 22 year old “Dr.” Ted Morris Jr., who lied about his resume, claiming he had degrees from a high school, college and even graduate schools that he had not attended and/or graduated from.  The State Education Department and the Regents did not do even the most minimal fact checking, as Morris’ resume in his charter application did not match his Linked-in profile, nor did it align with earlier charter applications he had submitted to NYSED, starting at the age of 18.  After his lies were discovered, “Dr.” Ted Morris resigned from the charter, but Tisch said that the school would be opened anyway, with a board recruited from Craig’s List. Subsequently, the approval was withdrawn, but only after bloggers and the media did the minimal research that NYSED had failed to fulfill in the first place.

At the same meeting, the Regents approved the Harlem charter application of Dr. Steve Perry, who runs a magnet school in Connecticut, even though his school enrolls far fewer poor students , those with disabilities, and English Language Learners than the other high schools in Hartford.  Perry is a controversial figure who has compared teachers to cockroaches and his bullying of parents led the Hartford Board of Education  president to call for an investigation against him. Now Jonathan Pelto has called for a new investigation – this time, into the fact that Perry admitted using Hartford district employees to prepare his charter application and to develop the educational programs to be implemented at his Harlem charter school.

Also at the same Regents meeting, NYSED released college-going statistics for districts and schools that were shown to be wildly inaccurate by Superintendents and principals throughout the state. 

A recent report, summarizing the audits of NY charter schools, concluded that millions of dollars have been wasted and/or improperly spent  by them, and there was “probable financial mismanagement in 95% of schools examined. “Another just-released report from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers found that NY is the 18th lowest out of 21 states for strong charter accountability laws.

Four years after the previous NY charter law was amended, that barred any charter school from being re-authorized or allowed to expand or replicate that has not enrolled equal numbers of at-risk students as the public schools in their communities, the state has failed to release any data that would allow one to assess their student attrition rates.   We know from the data that does exist that the student cohorts at many NYC charter schools, including Success Academy, lose many students along the way.  According to  Peter Goodman,

In the spring of 2013 a number of regent members asked the commissioner for a report on attrition: were the charter schools dumping low achieving and discipline problems especially before the state tests – a year and half later – no report.

Clearly, NYSED and the Regents have failed to be responsible for the charters that they have already authorized, have proven themselves incapable of performing minimal due diligence in authorizing new charters, and are certainly unable to provide proper oversight for the additional numbers of charter schools that Tisch wants to so “aggressively” expand.   It is time that the State Education Department and Chancellor Tisch stop recklessly throwing away taxpayer money in their campaign to privatize our public schools.  One has to wonder where the accountability is for them.