Recently Stacie Johnson, a sharp-eyed NYC parent, pointed out to me in an email how the DOE Office of District Planning (originally the Office of Portfolio Planning) is populated by many administrators who were formerly associated with charter schools. She wrote:
I was planning to reach out to someone about enrollment at my daughter's school and came across the name of a few people in DOE's strategic planning department and noticed a trend. It seems like the people who are in charge of planning, at least in my area, are all coming from a Teach for America and/or Charter School background. I've read about how the TFA and their affiliate Leaders for Educational Equity (LEE) are working to infiltrate their members into elected and policy positions, but I didn't realize this was so pervasive in Brooklyn. Is this news to you?
I hadn’t noticed this but decided to look into it.
District Planning was originally called the Office of Portfolio Planning under Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein, and was headed at various times by officials who, after a short stint of teaching, jumped onto the fast track towards power and influence. Two former heads of Portfolio Planning were John White (now State Superintendent of Louisiana) and Marc Sternberg (now head of Education for the Walton Family Foundation.) Their main qualifications for this job seemed to be able to portray no emotion during contentious and emotional public hearings, when teachers, students and parents begged them not to close their schools or force them into smaller spaces because of co-locations.
The office was created to pursue the portfolio model of school improvement, first developed by Paul Hill of the Gates-funded Center for Reinventing Public Education. It is based on the notion that parents should be given a wide “choice” of different types of schools, including charters and district public schools. The district will then decide which schools should be closed depending on their test scores, parent demand, or enrollment, with other schools created to take their place, many of them privately-run charter schools, in a process of continual change and disruption, like the buying and selling stocks in an investment portfolio.
There is much controversy as to this strategy’s effectiveness and rationale, as can be seen in a recent debate between Linda Darling-Hammond of the Learning Policy Institute and Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris of the Network for Public Education.
After Bill de Blasio was elected Mayor, and Carmen Farina appointed Chancellor, they changed the name of the office to District Planning, presumably because de Blasio had promised to focus his efforts on improving the public schools under his control, rather than closing them and encouraging charters to take their place. Yet school closings and charter co-locations continue under his watch, if at a somewhat slower pace than under the previous administration.
The Office of District Planning, according to its homepage, is supposed to create “annual strategic plans for all 32 Community School Districts through ongoing conversations with input from school communities and stakeholders.” In general, they analyze and help decide which schools should be closed and which buildings can be used to co-locate additional schools.
To help determine sites for co-locations, they create an annual list of schools that have “underutilized space” and an annual report on “overutilized space” that the office began to produce after the DOE was revealed by a 2014 audit by the NYC Comptroller not to have any actual plan to alleviate school overcrowding. (The latest version of this report still shows that there has been little or no progress in this area since then, as there were 720 overcrowded schools out of 1,749 schools in In the 2016-2017 school year, and 54 overcrowded high schools were still forced to have split sessions.)
Another key responsibility of District Planning is to respond to the requests of charter schools looking for space in DOE buildings. On its homepage it includes a request form:.
“State Education Law provides certain new and expanding charter schools with access to facilities. Charter schools requesting space in a DOE facility, must fill out the Charter School Space Request Form.”
Given how these officials oversee the response to charter school requests for space in public school buildings, it would be concerning if many of them came from the charter school sector.
After I received the email from Stacie, I discovered fairly quickly that many of the current DOE administrators in District Planning are alumni of a training program run by an organization called Education Pioneers. On its website, Education Pioneers lists NYC Department of Education as a “partner” since 2006.
One of the “fellows” they prominently list from the class of 2010 is Yael Kalban, Executive Director of the NYC DOE Office of District Planning, whose bio shows that she has steadily risen through the ranks at DOE since working as a TFA recruit in the Bronx. Here she is quoted in a story about Teach For America in the NY Times from 2005:
… Yael Kalban, who helped organize campus recruiting as a senior at Yale last year and now teaches second grade in the Bronx, said that even a two-year commitment was daunting to many of her classmates.
"We'd tell people we thought they'd be great, and they'd say they didn't know if they were ready to commit two years," she said. "So we would get alums to come in and say they'd done Teach for America, and now they were in medical school, law school or architecture school, and that those two years weren't that much, and had actually helped them get into those schools."
Yael went from teaching for two years to working in the Leadership Learning Support Organization (remember those?) to becoming Director of Portfolio Planning under Marc Sternberg. She then headed Portfolio Planning briefly until it was renamed District Planning in June 2014, and still runs the division as its as its Executive Director.
Here is an article from EdWeek about Education Pioneers, which was founded by Scott Morgan, formerly legal counsel of Aspire, a chain of charter schools based in California. The organization selects and trains bright young professionals over the course of a few days, before placing them in internships and educational management positions:
Applications to Education Pioneers, a nonprofit group that brings high-performing leaders—particularly those from outside education—into K-12 administrative internships, are rising steadily, putting the 10-year-old organization in line to follow in the footsteps of other nontraditional talent recruiters such as Teach For America. …
Education Pioneers places early-career professionals in paid noninstructional leadership and management internships—such as administrative, analytic, and operational positions—in a variety of education-related organizations, such as charter schools, educational technology companies, school districts, and support organizations. The average fellow comes with about five years of professional experience….
The fellows complete a two-day training session introducing them to some of the big-picture challenges in education, plus five full-day workshops with their cohort to focus on such topics as education technology or human capital in education. They also receive one-on-one coaching throughout the program to evaluate their progress.
Seventy percent of fellows continue to work in education-related jobs after finishing the program, a recent survey indicates….Some of the major funders include the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Robertson Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation. …
In 2011, the organization received $7.6 Million from the Gates Foundation to “Increase the Leadership Pipeline in K-12” and “help attract top-notch professionals for careers in public education leadership positions. The grant announcement described the sort of work that these individuals would focus upon:
This award showcases the emerging trend of attracting and placing more talented professionals into education leadership positions-a priority that was until recently overlooked. The selected individuals will use their unique skills and prior work experience on projects such as using student-level data to pinpoint areas for teacher intervention, analyzing data and researching best practices to improve curriculum and instruction, developing a strategic plan for a teacher evaluation pilot, and rigorous classroom observation protocols to provide meaningful feedback to teachers. Other projects include expansion plans for quality charter schools that have proven academic success.
A 2014 report, co-authored by the Harvard Business School, the Boston Consulting Group and the Gates Foundation, entitled Lasting Impact: A Business Leader's Playbook for Supporting America's Schools, praised the organization, claiming that Education Pioneers has “funneled hundreds of highly skilled data analysts into districts and state agencies to enable a culture of data-driven decision making.”
(On the same page, the authors described the Gates-funded teacher evaluation initiative in Hillsborough County in Florida as having “improved their teacher development processes by relying much more on data to recruit, train, and retain effective teachers.” Yet a multi-year RAND evaluation showed how that effort led to near-bankruptcy for the district, resulted in lower achievement rates and less access to effective teachers for low-income and minority students.)
After a bit of searching on LinkedIn, I found the following staffers at District Planning who came through the Education Pioneers pipeline:
Max Familian, Director of District Planning for Brooklyn North and Staten Island, who before that, worked at Community Roots Charter School for several years.
Theodore (T.R.) Pearson, Associate Director of District Planning for Queens.
Will Candell, Associate Director of District Planning (formerly TFA and Leadership for Education Equity – theTFA-linked organization)
Sarah Turchin, who now works in preK expansion and previously was a Director of District Planning.
Yet the staff at District Planning doesn’t seem to be entirely limited to alumni of Education Pioneers, at least according to their Linkedin profiles. Here are other current District Planning officials who came out of TFA and the charter school sector:
Jamie Dollinger, Senior Director of District Planning (formerly TFA and Achievement First charters)
Michael O'Gorman, Associate Director of Planning (formerly TFA and KIPP charters)
Michael O'Gorman, Associate Director of Planning (formerly TFA and KIPP charters)
Jess Meller, Director of District Planning (formerly of Uncommon Charter schools and a member of “National Charter Schools Professional Networking” )
Kelly Krag-Arnold, Associate Director of Planning (Formerly TFA and Leadership for Education Equity)
There are other DOE offices which also pull from the Education Pioneers program, such as the Office of School Enrollment, whose First Deputy is Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon. She was a Broad Foundation resident as well, a more publicized training program for incipient corporate reformers. Before coming to DOE, she headed the Newark Office of Student Enrollment, where she instituted a controversial common enrollment system. According to Chalkbeat, Ms. Ramos-Solomon left Newark schools last November, when a new Superintendent took over, selected by their newly empowered elected school board.
She oversaw the universal enrollment system, called “Newark Enrolls,” which lets families apply to most of the city’s traditional, magnet, and charter schools using a single application. After a chaotic launch that outraged many parents, the system today gets high marks on user surveys. Yet it remains controversial among critics of charter schools who view it little more than a ploy to funnel students into the privately managed schools.
The common enrollment system has been pushed hard by the Gates Foundation through their Gates district-charter compacts and CRPE, and was considered for adoption by the de Blasio administration in 2015, according to FOILed emails. .
In all, the Education Pioneers website reports that the NYC Department of Education has hired 202 Fellows over the years, and currently has 65 alumni on staff, including but not limited to staffers at DOE’s Division of Early Childhood Education, Division of Human Capital, Research and Evaluation, and many others. Among the various projects that they are described of having worked on are promoting the use of technology in schools – another Gates Foundation priority – and a communications strategy to improve the charter schools’ “engagement” with parents and communities:
Assessed business practices of technologically advanced schools, wrote case studies, and developed a communications plan for principals around technology practices to create 21st century-ready schools.
Developed an external relations strategy for the Charter School Accountability & Support team to help families navigate their options while improving charter school engagement within NYC communities.
All this suggests that the corporate reform/charter school adherents have successfully embedded the higher echelons of several divisions of DOE, even under an administration that ran for office as being less charter-friendly than Bloomberg administration. Indeed, many of these individuals appear to dominate the primary office that’s supposed to deal with critical issues that will determine the future of the entire school system: overcrowding, space utilization and charter school co-locations.