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.
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 mostunpopular 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|
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 reformstatus 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
1.1. 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, andhis 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|
|Credit: Lindamarie @Linda1746|
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.