Ravitch cites Yohuru Williams: Why education privatization is not what Dr. King wanted

January 21, 2015

I can’t improve on this with explanation, really, so I’ll just quote completely the post from Diane Ravitch at her blog.  Ravitch wrote:

Yohuru Williams, professor of history at Fairfield University, has written a brilliant and powerful piece about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the current effort to privatize large sectors of public education, especially in urban districts.

He scoffs at the idea that turning public schools over to private management is “the civil rights issue of our time,” as so many “reformers” say. He cites a number of statements by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that claim the mantle of civil rights for policies that actually exacerbate segregation.

He cites Dr. King at length to show that he would  not have supported the use of standardized testing as a means of “reform.”

Dr. Williams writes:

Dr. Yohuru R. Williams, Professor of History, Fairfield University

Dr. Yohuru R. Williams, Professor of History, Fairfield University

“We must remember,” King warned, “that intelligence is not enough . . . Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.” He asserted, “The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.”

King saw the goal of education as more than performance on high-stakes tests or the acquisition of job skills or career competencies. He saw it as the cornerstone of free thought and the use of knowledge in the public interest. For King, the lofty goal of education was not just to make a living but also to make the world a better place by using that production of knowledge for good. “To save man from the morass of propaganda,” King opined, “is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.” The notion that privatization can foster equality is fiction.

Dr. King understood the dangers of privatization, writes Dr. Williams:

King saw how school privatization was used to maintain segregation in Georgia. He witnessed the insidious efforts of Eugene Talmadge’s son, Herman, a distinguished lawyer, who succeeded his father in the governor’s office. Herman Talmadge created what became known as the “private-school plan.” In 1953, before the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, Talmadge proposed an amendment to the Georgia Constitution to empower the general assembly to privatize the state’s public education system. “We can maintain separate schools regardless of the US Supreme Court,” Talmadge advised his colleagues, “by reverting to a private system, subsidizing the child rather than the political subdivision.” The plan was simple. If the Supreme Court decided, as it eventually did in Brown, to mandate desegregation, the state would close the schools and issue vouchers to allowing students to enroll in segregated private schools.

What we are seeing in the name of “reform” today is the same plan with slight modifications: brand schools as low-performing factories of failure, encourage privatization, and leave the vast majority of students in underfunded, highly stigmatized public schools.

This effort will create an America that looks more like the 1967 Kerner Commission’s forecast, two societies separate and unequal, than Martin Luther King’s Beloved Community.

Dr. Williams says that the corporate education reform movement is the opposite of what Dr. King sought:

For King, the Beloved Community was a global vision of human cooperation and understanding where all peoples could share in the abundant resources of the planet. He believed that universal standards of human decency could be used to challenge the existence of poverty, famine, and economic displacement in all of its forms. A celebration of achievement and an appreciation of fraternity would blot out racism, discrimination, and distinctions of any kind that sought to divide rather than elevate people—no matter what race, religion, or test score. The Beloved Community promoted international cooperation over competition. The goal of education should be not to measure our progress against the world but to harness our combined intelligence to triumph over the great social, scientific, humanistic, and environmental issues of our time.

While it seeks to claim the mantle of the movement and Dr. King’s legacy, corporate education reform is rooted in fear, fired by competition and driven by division. It seeks to undermine community rather than build it and, for this reason, it is the ultimate betrayal of the goals and values of the movement.

Real triumph over educational inequalities can only come from a deeper investment in our schools and communities and a true commitment to tackling poverty, segregation, and issues affecting students with special needs and bilingual education. The Beloved Community is to be found not in the segregated citadels of private schools but in a well-funded system of public education, free and open to all—affirming our commitment to democracy and justice and our commitment to the dignity and worth of our greatest resource, our youth.

When President Obama talks about “the long haul,” part of that involves increasing the investment in our public schools.  Are we up for that?

Be sure to check Dr. Ravitch’s blog for comments — she gets more readership than I.  But feel free to comment here!

Dr. Diane Ravitch. Photo by Ed Darrell

Dr. Diane Ravitch. Photo by Ed Darrell

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Insta-Millard, education edition: Light on the problems of the Common Core State Standards

December 22, 2013

As if anyone were looking and needed light.  The heat is intense, and the light seems superfluous.

First, Jack Russell Weinstein, a philosopher in North Dakota, of all places, seems to me to have accurately found the issue in Common Core discussions, better than almost anyone else (including Diane Ravitch, at least for succinctness), in a short post at his blog PQED from which this is excerpted:

Jack Russell Weinstein presented the keynote a...

Jack Russell Weinstein presented the keynote address at the 2007 UND Undergraduate Philosophy Conference. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Philosophically then, the question is how to negotiate federal and local power in education. We are also concerned with what counts as expertise. If we combine the two, we are faced with a third issue: who negotiates all of this? When the National Governors’ Association created the new Common Core—the standards that many American school kids will now be evaluated against—they relied more heavily on business than on teachers. They asked Microsoft and the standardized testing companies what they thought, and minimized the input of those who actually teach. They then assumed a purpose that suited their needs: they concluded that students should graduate from high school career and college ready.

Now, these are good goals. Our students should be ready to move on to the next stage of life. But where is the love of literature, the ability to communicate needs and political ideas, the capacity to respect both difference and personal experience at the same time? Where is the understanding of the importance of math, science, and history, and the celebration of being alive, in the world, surrounded by art, music, comedy, and neighbors? Leaving these things out of schooling is a bit like teaching your child to kick a soccer ball while convincing her that she doesn’t deserve the chance. It’s like putting her on a soccer team only to teach her to despise the game. It’s like sending your kids to school while telling them that education and teachers have little value. Surely, the first goal of education, like the first goal of soccer, should be to show why it’s worth doing in the first place.

Looking for a general link to Ravitch’s blog, I stumbled on this post, “Why Teachers Don’t Like Common Core”:

Why do teachers resist the mandates of Common Core?

Dr. Diane Ravitch discussed education reform's problems in Dallas, in April 2010.  Photo by Ed Darrell

Dr. Diane Ravitch discussed education reform’s problems in Dallas, in April 2010. Photo by Ed Darrell

We suggest money spent on the development of these major unresearched and unfunded mandates to implement CCSS be used to alleviate the lack of resources — unequal staffing, support services, and restoration of school libraries, music and art classes, as well as enrichment programs in these schools. Research has shown that this is the way to help even the playing field for the districts in poverty.

Teachers are mind-molders. When they embrace, create and implement meaningful change with their students, they are helping every child reach his or her potential. Teachers embrace constructive, researched change that result in better, meaningful learning. Resistance to the Common Core standards should be understood in this context.

Rabid CSCOPE critics in Texas, dedicated to the tasks of destroying teaching while failing to recognize what they do, won’t understand.  First off they fail to recognize, as Dr. Weinstein explicitly does, that Common Core standards do not come from the federal government, botching the history of education and federal involvement from the get go.  More important, few discussions start out with seeking the common ground we might find by asking the question, what is the purpose of this education system we work on?

Do any of us fully understand?

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Her last day of teaching first grade

August 25, 2013

Diane Ravitch gets much better e-mail than I do; Ravitch said (images added here):

This came in my private email:

Woman teaching geometry, from Euclid's Elements.

Woman teaching geometry from Euclid’s Elements. Wikipedia image

As many of you know, I just retired from teaching, having spent most of my career in first grade. Over the last few years, my teaching had become gradually more restricted. Instead of running a center-based day, I was required to run scheduled periods of Fundations, Writing Workshop, Reading Workshop, and (this year) of Envision math. To encourage me to retire, my district had made a financial offer that was difficult to refuse. Almost simultaneously, my daughter had announced that she was pregnant with twins. The decision became easier and easier. As the pressures in New York State increased,  I decided what I wanted to do after retire: support families, fight the tests, tutor children to learn DESPITE the tests. That would mean running workshops for parents about curriculum. But that’s not what I want to write about tonight. I want to tell you about my last few weeks of teaching, and about my last good lesson.  

The district isn’t replacing me next year due to shrinking numbers. Once I announced my retirement, the vultures began to circle – teachers  seeking furniture, leveled books, left over supplies. (All of a sudden, my hoarding had value!) Gradually, my room became emptier and emptier. You’d have thought that my teaching would have suffered, but — I LOVED IT, AND SO DID THE KIDS!!! Painting, gluing, research, math projects; WE ALL RELISHED THE CHANGE! It was a very special time – though teary, for some. I’m not sure why my retiring should result in so many sad children (since I wouldn’t have been their teacher the following year), but there you have it. 

Pamela teaching her children (1743–45)

Joseph Highmore’s illustration of Pamela teaching her children (1743–45); in volume four of Samuel Richardson’s novel, Pamela, Pamela endorses much of Locke’s educational program, while at the same time claiming a valuable new role for mothers: educator.

Driving to school on my last full day, I thought about what I could teach that day in my empty classroom. All I had was art paper, scotch tape, and crayons. The kids had already taken home their markers. I thought about how I could say good-bye. I wanted to help them gain some perspective. I wanted them to know they had each other. (I’d already told them they could email.)  I thought about how our paths had crossed and come together so arbitrarily, but how being together in this class had changed all our lives. And then I knew what I’d do! 

I gave each child one piece of 12″ x18″ paper. I told them that each child was to draw a path across the paper. It could be straight across or curved or jagged – whatever. We agreed that the paths would be about a fist wide, and had to be drawn in purple. The rest of the paper was to be decorated with whatever else they thought might have been on their paths this year. 

Everyone did as I requested after a few false starts. Some of the drawings were quite thoughtful and charming.  I then told the kids that we were now going to connect our paths together. I was having a small get together that night, and I told the children we needed something on the wall. Immediately, some of the kids became excited, and tried to put their papers together. I suggested that the kids get on the floor and connect their paths like a puzzle, assemble their work on the floor, and that we’d move it to the wall later. I’d never done this activity before, and had no idea how it would turn out. Over the course of the next half hour, I kept telling myself: Remember, it’s process over product.  

As the kids worked, I gradually stepped back. The children were making decisions about which paths connected, which looked best together, which should be moved to a different spot. There were no arguments, even though there were differences of opinion. I handed the kids scotch tape dispensers as needed. I mentioned to one little boy that it was great that there were no fights. He said to me, “Well, remember when I invented a game for the playground and then we all had a fight because I wanted to make all the rules? Remember how you explained to me how a true leader doesn’t make all the rules, but helps others to join in? Well – maybe that’s what we’ve all been doing.” 

I was absolutely floored. 

That’s when I knew how much I’d miss teaching. That feeling of molding a group and helping them become better together than singly – that’s amazing.

Empty first grade classroom.  From A Day in First Grade blog.

Empty first grade classroom. From A Day in First Grade blog.


Hold teachers accountable? I don’t think that word means what you think it means

June 18, 2013

Diane Ravitch gets all the good discussion — of course, she’s much the expert and she’s done several thousand posts in the last year.

View of a two-story wood-frame school house wi...

View of a two-story wood-frame school house with students and teachers out front, by H. N. Gale & Co. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ravitch engaged in a brief back-and-forth with Ben Austin, a guy who contributed to the invention of virtual IEDs to blow up California schools, called parent trigger laws.  Under California law, if 50% +1 of the parents of the students at a school sign a petition, the district must take apart the faculty or give up control of the school to a non-public school entity.  See my posts repeating the early parts of the exchange under “More” at the bottom of the post.

For reasons I can’t figure, parent trigger advocates claim these moves bring “accountability” to education, though the only effect is usually to fire public school teachers.  Oddly, most of the time replacements then are not accountable to the local school district nor the state for similar levels of student educational achievement.  But a public school is dead and a private entity has taken its place.

Discussion on the threads at Ravitch’s blog get long.

Phila. Teachers on Capitol Steps, Wash., D.C.,...

Philadelphia teachers on Capitol Steps, Washington, D.C., May 13, 1011. Library of Congress colleciton

I responded to a guy named Steve who rather asserted that teachers are just trying to avoid accountability, and so should probably be fired (there’s more nuance to his position, but not enough).  A few links are added here, for convenience of readers.

Steve said:

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were absolutely no standardized measures for educational success, and teachers could simply focus on educating children in whatever way they believe is best, and that all schools were funded to their greatest need and without oversight? And students learned to their capacity and everyone would sing kum-ba-yah at the end of the day?

No. The premise of no standardized measures is a bad idea. In that case, as now, we would have no real way to determine whether the system is working.

You mistake testing for reform, and you mistake test results for quality; you assume that test results are the result of what a teacher does in the previous few months, without any assistance (or interference) from parents, the front office, state agencies, and smart phones.

It would be good if we had research to guide teachers in the best ways to educate kids. We have way too little now, and what does exist rarely can break through the complex regulatory web created by NCLB proponents who ironically, and probably sardonically, require any new process to be “research tested and proven,” probably knowing that gives raters more opportunities to fire teachers.

That’s where our dispute lies.

Yes, sometimes it’s best to hold hands and sing “Kum Ba Yah.” Especially in school. Singing is good, music education is important to the development of sterling minds. Group activities to celebrate milestones produces greater achievement.

I gather you’re opposed to that. That’s a key part of the problem. “Reformers” are too often working against what we know works (though often we’re not sure why it works), against what many regard as “frills” like music and poetry (well, Aristotle argued against it, didn’t he?), and against achievement that can’t be used to fire somebody.

It’s a problem of models. A group singing a song together shows some developmental progress, and may show other progress. The Donald Trump “You’re Fired” model is much more titillating to bullies. Bullies tend to rule too many places.

We need a model that works, a model grounded in good theory (“theory” does not mean “guess”), a model that produces some sort of scoreboard teachers can use, day-in and day-out, to determine what to do next.

“Accountability” is a light on that scoreboard, but it’s not the score, and it’s not the game.

And yes, it certainly would be a better world if poverty, racism, abuse and more simply didn’t exist.

Don’t patronize with stuff you don’t believe and you know policy makers won’t work towards.

Poverty is the big one here. We’ve known for 40 years that poor parents as a group cannot produce students who will achieve well academically as well as rich parents, not because they’re not the great parents they are, but because middle class wealth brings learning opportunities for preschool kids and pre-adolescents and teens that mold minds and make them work well; kids in poverty miss that. Until you’ve tried to get your students up to speed on the Constitution with students who do not know how many states there are, what oceans border our nation, who George Washington was, what a Constitution is, how laws are made, or where food comes from, you really don’t appreciate the difficulty.

Yeah, they used to get that stuff in the newspaper. But their families can’t afford newspapers.

And when I get those kids to “commended” levels on the state test, how dare you tell me I’ve failed. Shame on you, and may you be nervous every time you hear thunder, or go under the knife with a surgeon who passed my class.

But this isn’t the world we live in. This is an organized society. When public funds are spent, there needs to be accountability.

There can be no accountability where there is no authority. If I do not have the authority to obtain the tools to educate the students in my tutelage to the standard, why not hold accountable those who are the problem? I produced four years of achievement in the bottom 20% — you’re bellyaching because the top 3% only got one year of achievement? They were already scoring at the 14 year level — sophomores in college. “Adequate Yearly Progress” can’t be had for those students, if you define adequate as “more than one year,” and if they’re already far beyond the material we are required to teach.

Accountability is a tool to get toward quality. You want to use it as a club. I think it should be a crime to misuse tools in that fashion.

You really don’t have a clue what’s going on in my classroom, do you.

I am *so* tired of the educators on this blog berating anyone who suggests that a teacher be accountable for *anything*.

Show me where anyone has said that. I weary of anti-education shouters complaining about teachers not being accountable, when we’re swimming in “accountability,” we’re beating the system most of the time, and still berated for it; our achievements are denigrated, our needs are ignored. If we win the Superbowl, we’re told we failed to win an Oscar. If we win the Superbowl AND an Oscar, we’re told someone else did better at the Pulitzers. If we win the Nobel Prize for Peace, we’re asked to beef up our STEM chops.

I was asked to boost my state passing scores by 5%. Part of the reason Dallas dismissed me was my abject refusal to sign to that (“insubordination”). That it’s mathematically impossible to boost a 100% passing rate to 105% didn’t change anyone’s mind, nor give anyone pause in passing along the paper. College acceptances didn’t count, SAT scores didn’t count, student evaluations didn’t count.

I wish idiots who can’t do math would be held accountable, but you want my gray scalp instead (and larger paycheck; but of course, that’s not really in the system, is it?). Is there no reason you can find to cling to?

There’s a difference between “accountability,” and “pointless blame.” See if you can discern it. Your children’s future depends on it. Our nation’s future depends on it. We’re not playing school here.

People are accountable for the work that they do.

That’s absolutely untrue in about 85% of the jobs in America. W. Edwards Deming died, and people forgot all about the 14 points and how to make winning teams. Are you familiar with the Red Bead experiment?

Most people calling for accountability can’t define it (Hint: in the top management schools, you don’t see this equation: “accountability=fire somebody”).

Can you do better? What is “accountability?” Will you please rate me on the advancements of my students? No? How about on their achievements? No? Can you tell me even what you want to hold teachers accountable for?

Don’t wave that sword when you don’t know how to use it, or if you can’t recognize the difference between a scalpel and a scimitar, please.

You give me white beads, I turn 80% of them red, and you complain about the few that remain white? [If you’re paying attention and you know Deming’s experiment, you know I reversed the color in my example — no one ever catches me on that.  Why?]  You’re playing the guy who, having witnessed Jesus walking on water, wrote the headline, “Jesus can’t swim!” That’s a joke — it’s not how to make a better school, or a better education system, and it’s not accountability.

NOBODY wants a teacher to be accountable for things that are beyond their control. You have had FIFTY YEARS to develop a means to show that you are accountable in your use of public funds. You have not done it to the public’s satisfaction.

As Deming noted occasionally, we’ve had 5,000 years to develop standards of quality for carpentry and metalwork, and haven’t done it.

The Excellence in Education Commission in 1983 recommended changes to stop the “rising tide of mediocrity” in education. Among the top recommendations, raise teacher pay dramatically, and get out of the way of teachers so they can do their job.

Instead, teacher pay has stagnated and declined, and we have a bureaucracy the sort of which George Orwell never had a nightmare about standing in their way.

But you want to “hold the teachers accountable.”

I suppose it’s impossible to be part of the rising tide of mediocrity and also recognize you’re part of the problem.

Your failure to understand accountability should not cost me my job. I not only want accountability, I want justice, especially for my students. 97% of my students will face invidious racial discrimination when they go out to get a job; many of them (about 50%) come from families who don’t use banks. No checking accounts, no home loans, no car loans from a bank. More than half of the males have never worn a tie. 75% of them come from homes where no novel is on any bookshelf; 30% of them claim to come from homes where there are no books at all, not even a phone book.

They passed the test with flying colors despite that.

That kid who came in not knowing how to write a paragraph went out of my classroom with a commended on his state test, and writing well enough to score 80th percentile on the SAT including the writing part. You have a lot of damnable gall to claim that my work to get him to write his brilliant ideas, well, was wasted effort.

Why won’t you hold me accountable for that? Why do you refuse to look at real accountability?

Don’t claim I’m shucking accountability, when you haven’t looked, and you don’t know what it is.

So – others are now coming in to try and develop what you failed to do. Yup, some of them are shysters. Some of them are ego-maniacs. And some of them are doing so because they have experience and success and they can apply those to helping to improve education and measurement of same.

Good luck to them. Why not let me compete with them. I mean compete fairly — either they don’t get to take money from me merely by existing, or I get to take money from them when I beat them in achievement, and when we take students away from them because they aren’t getting the job done?

You seem to think that these other alternatives for sucking taxpayer money work better. My schools beat charter schools and most private schools in our same population in achievement, in yearly progress, and in a dozen other categories. (Our art students took the top prizes at the state show, beating students from one of the nation’s “top ten high schools” four miles away; the art teachers who got them there? Rated inadequate, given growth plans, funding cut . . . I though you were campaigning for accountability?)

Don’t change the subject. I thought you were for accountability. All of a sudden, you’re against it when we’re talking brass tacks. When we miss a standard, we public school teachers get fired. When we beat the hell out of a standard, we still get fired. When we beat the private schools, the charter schools, and the home schooled kids in achievement, we get zip, or a pink slip.

Accountability? I’d love to see it. You can’t show it, though, so you’re wasting my time and taxpayer money hollering about it.

Some of you even have the temerity to say that the system isn’t broken. Well, maybe it’s not broken for *you*. But it IS broken for the rest of us. And it’s public money here – so – if you are so certain that everything is hunky-dory in what you are adding to the process, well then, prove it. That’s what using public funds requires.

Your kids are in jail? Sorry the system failed you so badly. I had a 90% graduation rate out of my students, in a state where 75% is the state norm and suspected by everyone to be inflated. If your kids are not in jail, and didn’t drop out, that’s good.

Public education isn’t a right (in most states); it’s a civic duty, the thing that keeps our republic alive and democratic. School worries about your kids, sure — but we must also worry about every other kid, too.

What about the 200 other families in your neighborhood? The levels of vandalism and other crimes in your neighborhood depends on the children of those families getting an education. I was able to turn around a dozen of them. The local cops actually did a good job with another dozen.

The local charter school wouldn’t take any of those 24 kids. The private schools took one on an athletic scholarship, but he flunked out his junior year, after football season ended. He was out of school for full six months before we got him back. Three of those girls got commended on the state test despite their having infants; two others got commended and one more passed for the first time in her life despite their delivering children within three weeks of the test. We covered the history of children’s literature one week, convincing more than a few that they should read to their babies, as they were never read to. I got the local bookstore to donate children’s books for each parent in my class, so that their children won’t grow up without at least one book in the house.

We’re teachers, and we worry about the future. Why won’t you allow accountability for that?

Accountability? The word does not mean what you think it means.

Firing teachers is not accountability. It’s an evasion of accountability. It’s destructive of schooling and education. Firing teachers damages children. Even if you could tell who the bad teachers are — and you can’t, no one can do it well — firing teachers cannot offer hope of getting better teachers to replace them.

Why not improve education instead? Who is accountable for that?

Again at Diane Ravitch’s blog, Steve responded that he wants everyone held accountable, including parents and administrators.  Good, so far as it goes.  I think that’s just lip service.  He’s still firing teachers with no way to tell the good from the bad.

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War on Teachers and Education, Part 3: Prof. Ravitch’s response

June 10, 2013

At her blog again, Diane Ravitch responded to Ben Austin’s open letter to her at the Huffington Post.

Earlier today, Ben Austin wrote an open letter to me on Huffington Post. He expressed dismay about my characterization of him and his group Parent Revolution. Read his letter here. Here is my reply.

My Reply to Ben Austin’s Open Letter to Me

Dear Ben Austin,

Thank you for your invitation to engage in dialogue in your letter posted on Huffington Post.

You probably know that I have been writing a daily blog for the past fourteen months and during that time, I have written over 4,000 posts. I can’t remember any time when I have lost my temper other than when I wrote about your successful effort to oust an elementary school principal in Los Angeles named Irma Cobian.

I apologize for calling you “loathsome,” though I do think your campaign against a hardworking, dedicated principal working in an inner-city school was indeed loathsome. And it was wrong of me to say that there was a special place in hell reserved for anyone “who administers and funds this revolting organization that destroys schools and fine educators like Irma Cobian.”

As I said, I lost my temper, and I have to explain why.

I don’t like bullies. When I saw this woman targeted by your powerful organization, it looked like bullying. Your organization is funded by many millions of dollars from the Walton Family Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. You have a politically powerful organization, and you used your power to single out this one woman and get her fired.

Your organization sent in paid staff to collect signatures from parents. The teachers in the school were not permitted to express their opinion to parents about your efforts to fire their principal. When you succeeded in getting her fired, 21 of the 22 teachers on staff requested a transfer. That suggests that Cobian has the loyalty of her staff and is a good leader.

Who is this woman that you ousted?

All I know about her is what I read in this article in the Los Angeles Times.

It said: “More than two decades ago, Cobian walked away from a high-powered law firm to teach. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, she said she was inspired by a newspaper article about the low high school graduation rates of Latinos and wanted to make a difference.

“Her passion for social justice led her to Watts in 2009.”

Irma Cobain is now in her fourth year as principal of the school, and you decided that her time was up.

What did her teachers say about her?

“Third-grade teacher Kate Lewis said Irma Cobian is the best principal she’s had in nine years at Weigand Avenue Elementary School in Watts.

“Joseph Shamel called Cobian a “godsend” who has used her mastery of special education to show him how to craft effective learning plans for his students.”

“Fourth-grade teacher Hector Hernandez said Cobian is the first principal he’s had who frequently pops into classrooms to model good teaching herself. Recently, he said, she demonstrated how to teach about different literary genres by engaging students in lively exercises using characters from the “Avengers” comic book and film.”

When Cobian arrived at the Weigand Avenue Elementary school four years ago, she found a school with low test scores, low parent involvement, and divisiveness over a dual-language program. “All the students come from low-income families, more than half are not fluent in English and a quarter turn over every year,” the Los Angeles Times story said.

Cobian decided to focus on improving literacy and raising morale. She certainly won over the faculty.

The day after Cobian learned about the vote removing her, she went to a second-grade classroom to give prizes to children who had read 25 books this year. She cheered those who met the goal and encouraged those who were trying. But she could not hide her sadness.

“I need happiness today,” Cobian told the bright-eyed students. “What do I do when I’m sad?”

“Come here!” the students sang out.

For a moment, her sadness gave way to smiles. But later, she said: “I am crushed.”

Ben, how did you feel when you read that? I felt sad. I felt this was a caring and dedicated person who had been singled out unfairly.

Ben, I hope you noticed in the article that Dr. John Deasy, the superintendent of schools in Los Angeles, praised the plan that Cobian and her staff developed for improving the school. He called it a “well-organized program for accelerated student achievement.” He thanked Cobian for her commitment and hard work.” But you decided she should be fired.

Ironically, the parent who worked with you to fire Cobian said she preferred Weigand to her own neighborhood school where she had concerns about bullying. Even stranger, the parents at Cobian’s school voted to endorse her plan. Your parent spokesperson said she did not like the plan because it focused on reading and writing, but she told the reporter from the Los Angeles Times that she actually never read the plan.

I understand from your letter, Ben, that you somehow feel you are a victim because of what I wrote about you. But, Ben, you are not a victim. Irma Cobian is the victim here. She lost her job because of your campaign to get rid of her. She is the one who was humiliated and suffered loss of income and loss of reputation. You didn’t. You still have your organization, your staff, and the millions that the big foundations have given you.

I am sorry you had a tough childhood. We all have our stories about growing up. I am one of eight children. My father was a high-school dropout. My mother immigrated from Bessarabia and was very proud of her high school diploma from the Houston public schools. She was proud that she learned to speak English “like a real American.” My parents were grateful for the free public schools of Houston, where I too graduated from high school. We had our share of problems and setbacks but I won’t go on about myself or my siblings because my story and yours are really beside the point. What troubles me is what you are doing with the millions you raise. You use it to sow dissension, to set parents against parents, parents against teachers, parents against principals. I don’t see this as productive or helpful. Schools function best when there is collaboration among teachers, parents, administrators, and students. Schools have a better chance of success for the children when they have a strong community and culture of respect.

Your “parent trigger” destroys school communities. True to its name, the “trigger” blasts them apart. It causes deep wounds. It decimates the spirit of respect and comity that is necessary to build a strong community. Frankly, after the school shootings of recent years, your use of the metaphor of a “parent trigger” is itself offensive. We need fewer triggers pointed at schools and educators. Please find a different metaphor, one that does not suggest violence and bloodshed.

It must be very frustrating to you and your funders that–three years after passage of the “parent trigger” law– you can’t point to a single success story. I am aware that you persuaded the parents at the Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, California, to turn their public school over to a privately operated charter. I recall that when parents at the school tried to remove their signatures from your petition, your organization went to court and won a ruling that they were not allowed to rescind their signatures. Ultimately only 53 parents in a school of more than 600 children chose the charter operator. Since the charter has not yet opened, it is too soon to call that battle a success for Parent Revolution. Only the year before, the Adelanto Charter Academy lost its charter because the operators were accused of financial self-dealing.

But, Ben, let me assure you that I bear you no personal ill will. I just don’t approve of what you are doing. I think it is wrong to organize parents to seize control of their public school so they can fire the staff or privatize it. If the principal is doing a bad job, it is Dr. Deasy’s job to remove her or him. I assume that veteran principals and teachers get some kind of due process, where charges are filed and there is a hearing. If Cobain was as incompetent as you say, why didn’t Dr. Deasy bring her up on charges and replace her?

I also have a problem with the idea that parents can sign a petition and hand their public school off to a private charter corporation. The school doesn’t belong to the parents whose children are enrolled this year. It belongs to the public whose taxes built it and maintains it. As the L.A. Times story pointed out, one-quarter of the children at Weigand Avenue Elementary School are gone every year. The parents who sign a petition this year may not even be parents in the school next year. Why should they have the power to privatize the school? Should the patrons of a public library have the power to sign a petition and privatize the management? Should the people using a public park have the right to take a vote and turn the park over to private management?

We both care about children. I care passionately about improving education for all children. I assume you do as well. You think that your organized raids on public schools and professionals will lead to improvement. I disagree. Schools need adequate resources to succeed. They also need experienced professionals, a climate of caring, and stability. I don’t see anything in the “trigger” concept that creates the conditions necessary for improvement. Our teachers and principals are already working under too much stress, given that schools have become targets for federal mandates and endless reforms.

I suggest that educators need respect and thanks for their daily work on behalf of children. If they do a bad job, the leadership of the school system is responsible to take action. What educators don’t need is to have a super-rich, super-powerful organization threatening to pull the trigger on their career and their good name.

Ben, thanks for the open letter and the chance to engage in dialogue. If you don’t mind, I want to apologize to Irma Cobain on your behalf. She was doing her best. She built a strong staff that believes in her. She wrote a turnaround plan that Dr. Deasy liked and the parents approved. Ms. Cobain, if you read this, I hope you can forgive Ben. Maybe next time, he will think twice, get better information, and consider the consequences before he decides to take down another principal.

Diane Ravitch

If Dr. Ravitch is correct in her claims, and her fears for future results, the biggest problem with this parent-trigger farce is that it costs a lot of money, and does only damage to schools, and to students, therefore.

Please continue to Part 4.

This series, on the dustup between Prof. Diane Ravitch and Ben Austin in California:

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War on Teachers and Education, Part 2: Ben Austin of Parent Revolution attacked Prof. Ravitch

June 10, 2013

Ben Austin is the head of Parent Revolution, the group trying to push teachers out of management of schools in California.  After Prof. Diane Ravitch noted problems with his group’s actions at Weigand Avenue Elementary in Los Angeles, on her blog, he responded with an “open-letter” carried by Huffington Post.

Other than the link to Dr. Ravitch’s post (“now infamous blog post,” as Austin calls it), all links are added here.

Dear Professor Diane Ravitch:

Parents, educators, and education advocates have a lot in common when it comes to a kids-first first agenda. But we can never seize that common ground if those with whom we disagree are deemed to be “evil” and sentenced to Hell, as you did last week in your now infamous blog post.

If we can’t start from that basic premise, then we are no more mature than the children we endeavor to serve. We cannot purport to encourage tolerance and discourage bullying on the schoolyard if the adults in charge of the schoolyard can’t adhere to those same basic principles.

For the past year, the organization for which I serve as executive director – Parent Revolution – has been working with parents from the Watts neighborhood community school Weigand Avenue Elementary to help turnaround their failing school. Although there appear to be some areas of improvement at the school, Weigand is currently ranked 15th worst of nearly 500 elementary schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), and has been on a continual overall downward slide for the past 3-4 years under its current school leadership.

Four years is a long time for parents to wait for improvements in a failing school, despite even the best of intentions from dedicated professionals like Weigand’s current principal. Unfortunately, the current principal was unable to make the progress needed to turnaround the school.

In 2011 many of these same parents petitioned along with Weigand’s teachers to oust their failed principal, but had no real power to force change, and the principal retained her job. Every teacher who signed that 2011 petition is now gone, and the school has gotten even worse since then.

Many of the kids have now “graduated” without having learned basic skills. Currently, more than half of kids at Weigand cannot read, write, or do math at grade level.

So this year, the parents organized again – but this time using California’s landmark Parent Trigger law, which gives parents trapped in a failing school the power to force leadership or staffing changes at the school, or convert it to a non-profit charter school.

After the parents submitted petitions representing a majority of parents at the school demanding a leadership change, the district complied with the law, verified the parents’ legal majority, and in August Weigand will open up as a newly transformed school with new leadership.

Recently, in a debate about whether these parents should have the power to demand a new principal for their failing public school, you labeled me “loathsome” for siding with the parents. You declared that everyone who supports these parents “deserves a special place in Hell.”

Let me tell you about Hell.

I grew up in Greenwich Village and Venice Beach, the son of two writers. My parents published a number of books, but our family struggled financially.

In many ways, I grew up lucky. I grew up with parents who valued education and loved me. They helped me get a scholarship to a private high school in Los Angeles. That scholarship may have saved my life.

My dad was an alcoholic. A few weeks before my junior year in high school, he committed suicide. I vividly remember going to the first day of school after my dad’s death, soon after his funeral. As a kid, my overriding emotion that day was embarrassment. I (wrongly) assumed that all the wealthy kids at my school had near perfect home lives, and I was embarrassed about mine. I didn’t want them to know about my dad, but it was such a small school that I knew that everyone would.

That’s what I remember as a boy. But looking back as an adult, I see that same day through a different lens. I can see the role that educators and others played to get me through this Hell.

I see how my teachers and my principal sat down with me that first day of school to talk. They told me they believed in me. They told me they would help me. Some even told me they loved me.

They told me I could make it. And I did. I graduated from high school, then Berkeley, then Georgetown Law School. I worked in the Clinton White House as well as on five Democratic presidential campaigns. I served as deputy mayor in Los Angeles, and sat as a member of the California State Board of Education.

I was lucky. But my younger brother wasn’t so lucky.

He went to a different school. His principal told him that he would never amount to anything. So he dropped out of school in 9th Grade. He fell down, and with no one at his school to help pick him up (and no dad), he lost a decade of his life.

Astonishingly, he did end up getting back up. Years later, he earned his GED, went to college, then business school and now is an awesome dad with a wonderful family. But his story is not the typical story of a 9th grade drop out.

When I see kids attending schools like Weigand, I see kids who are going through a whole lot more at home than I could have ever imagined as a boy, but who don’t have a safe place where somebody believes in them, supports them and loves them. Many kids drop out like my brother, but rarely share his happy ending.

So forgive me if I take it personally when parents trapped in a failing school ask for the same kind of support for their children that saved me as a child, and that I now expect from my daughters’ neighborhood public school as a father.

Your opposition to the Weigand parents is especially puzzling given the logic of your prior critique of Parent Trigger as a conspiracy to trick parents into converting their school into a charter school. The Weigand parents did not want a charter school, or new teachers, or even a new union contract. They wanted a change in leadership after 4 years of failure.

Weigand has exposed you as being opposed not just to charter schools, but to pure parent power.

To be clear, the reason that we have never personally attacked you, the principal, or any other opponent of parent power, is because our goal isn’t a political victory. It is a victory for our kids, and we can’t achieve that goal without ultimately working together.

Just last year, I wrote about you in the Huffington Post: “Diane Ravitch is a talented academic who has devoted her life to this issue. She clearly cares about kids and the future of public education in America.” I believed it then and still believe it now, despite your mean-spirited attacks against me and the committed parents and staff with whom I work. Instead of puerile name-calling and ugly personal attacks, let’s commit to a debate about a kids-first agenda and the future of public education that is worthy of our children.

Your intelligence and unique perspective have the potential to enrich this debate. But we must stipulate that this debate will not occur in Hell, Heaven, or in some imaginary world where one side has all the answers and holds all the moral authority.

Let us debate about the future of American public education on Planet Earth, where ideas and civility matter.

Sincerely,

Ben Austin
Executive Director
Parent Revolution

Why didn’t he respond on Ravitch’s blog?  I don’t know for sure, but as deliverd on HuffPo, this letter is a poison-the-well tactic:  Austin didn’t respond to Ravitch’s criticism directly.  Instead, he attacked Ravitch’s tone, making Ravitch out to be a rude person — but he did so to a different audience, one that had no background in the controversy.  Had he responded at her blog, he wouldn’t have the chance to introduce the audience of not-closely-watching-this-issue people to his biases first.  So this letter increases my skepticism of the good faith claims of Parent Revolution and Ben Austin.

Ben Austin’s group, Parent Revolution’s website lists a string of successes.  Each of those successes is a political victory over teachers and educators.  So far, there is not a single school turnaround success Ben Austin’s group can point out for us.  They claim they worked for a year with parents to turn around Weigand Avenue elementary.  As a political organizer, education administrator, civics wonk and teacher, I wonder why Austin’s group didn’t work with the teachers, too or instead.  The work described was not to turn around Weigand, but rather to wrest control from people who, by all accounts I’ve seen, were making solid progress in a tough situation.  I have not found evidence of a working PTA, which suggests the parents could not and would not organize a toss-the-principal campaign on their own. (If you have information on a working PTA, please note it in comments.)

Austin’s group is no fly-by-night neighborhood parents’ group.  Austin has no children at Weigand, nor do any of the other full-time staffers on the group’s payroll.  The Hechinger Report notes:

Parent Revolution, whose backers include the Gates, Walton Family and Wasserman foundations, now has a budget that has climbed close to $5.5 million and a staff of about 45, including its California and national teams, Phelps said.

I’m mystified by Austin’s story of his family life.  It explains some of his drive, perhaps, but it’s totally at odds with his group’s continuing attacks on the teachers and principals who, he claims, were heroes in his own life.  He also calls out the principal of his brother’s school as a villain.  But he offers not a hint of any rational way to tell who are the heroes and who are the villains in these dramas.

Plus, he almost completely brushes off the concerns raised by Ravitch and the Los Angeles Times.  The woman fired by Austin’s outside agitator-style actions looks a heroine in every portrait I’ve seen. The Parent Revolution targeting of Irma Cobian is covered in a smokescreen for no apparent reason.  Austin managed to can the one person who could save the life of a kid like Ben Austin.

Is there an explanation?

Please continue to Part 3.

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War on Teachers and Education, Part 1: Prof. Ravitch’s emotion-touching call for a cease-fire on teachers

June 10, 2013

This is the first of five parts needed to document and lay the background for what unfortunately promises to be a pitched public relations battle, if not a serious battle to rescue a California school from being crushed by a corporation making a hostile takeover of a school using California’s “parent trigger” law.  Follow-ups may be needed.

Diane Ravitch in Dallas, April 28, 2010 - Copyright 2010 Ed Darrell (you may use freely, with attribution)

Diane Ravitch in Dallas, April 28, 2010 – Copyright 2010 Ed Darrell (you may use freely, with attribution)

If you’ve followed education issues, you know Dr. Diane Ravitch is a professor of education at Columbia, one of the most respected schools of education in the world.  Her work on education reform was popular with the Reagan administration in the period after the Report of the Commission on Excellence in Education in 1983, and particularly with education reformers at the time I was tapped to work at the Department of Education, in the old Office of Educational Research and Improvement.  Dr. Ravitch was appointed to head that arm of Education in the administration of George H. W. Bush, but after I had left government for the private sector.

More recently, Dr. Ravitch has looked hard to find evidence that the testing regimes imposed by the “No Child Left Behind” Act (NCLB) actually produce benefits to the education of students.

Finding no such evidence, Dr. Ravitch has called for an end to unproven methods of destruction of schools and school systems in pursuit of foggy, unattainable goals.

Recently, big-dollar guys have backed efforts to kick out teachers and trained educators from schools, and in particular with “parent-trigger” laws, which allow a group of parents to petition for the removal of professionals at a school, and for a group of parents to then take over the management of that school.

Oddly, the first places these laws have been applied is against teachers in schools where parental involvement has been historically abysmal.  A closer look shows that in these cases professional organizers, well-financed by businessmen who fancy themselves education reformers, did the load-carrying to get the petitions signed, and to get the educators ousted.

One of the schools where this process is moving is Weigand Avenue Elementary School in Watts, that troubled, poverty-ridden section of Los Angeles more famous for riots and gangs than educational attainment.

Dr. Ravitch wrote on her blog on May 25:

Parent Revolution Force Out Excellent Principal

The billionaire-funded Parent Revolution flexed its muscle and got enough parent signatures to force the resignation of a highly effective principal.

Please read the story.

This is the principal who was ousted by Parent Revolution:

“Third-grade teacher Kate Lewis said Irma Cobian is the best principal she’s had in nine years at Weigand Avenue Elementary School in Watts.

“Joseph Shamel called Cobian a “godsend” who has used her mastery of special education to show him how to craft effective learning plans for his students.

“Los Angeles Unified Supt. John Deasy praised a plan developed by Cobian and her team to turn around the struggling campus — where most students test below grade level in reading and math — calling it a “well-organized program for accelerated student achievement.” He thanked Cobian for her commitment and hard work.”

21 of the school’s 22 teachers have requested transfers because of Cobian’s ouster.

Parent Revolution is a malevolent organization funded by Walton, Gates, and Broad.

There is a special place in hell reserved for everyone who administers and funds this revolting organization that destroys schools and fine educators like Irma Cobian.

Dr. Ravitch has a good sense of justice, and injustice in my opinion.  This situation got her thinking, and she had more comments later.

Wondering About Ben Austin

Earlier today, I posted an article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times about Parent Revolution forcing the ouster of an excellent principal, Irma Cobian.

I keep thinking about it. I think about the way her staff admired and respected her, how 21 of 22 teachers requested a transfer when she was targeted by the phony Parent Revolution.

Ben Austin is loathsome. He ruined the life and career of a dedicated educator. She was devoted to the children, he is devoted to the equally culpable foundations that fund his Frankenstein organization–Walton, Gates, and Broad. His biggest funder is the reactionary Walton Family Foundation [line added here], which spends $160 million every year to advance privatization.

Ben Austin is Walton’s useful idiot. He prattles on about his liberal credentials, but actions speak louder than words.

Here is my lifelong wish for him.

Ben, every day when you wake up, you should think of Irma Cobian. When you look in the mirror, think Irma Cobian. Your last thought every night should be Irma Cobian.

Ben, you ruined the life of a good person for filthy lucre. Never forget her. She should be on your conscience–if you have one–forever.

W. Edwards Deming

W. Edwards Deming,Wikipedia image. Oddly, few, if any, education reform efforts work to incorporate any of Deming’s rules for running high-efficiency, highly-productive, championship-quality organizations; its as if there is a different agenda being pursued.

Ravitch makes a good point.  Organizational turnarounds rarely work when they start with mass firings.  It didn’t work in the French Revolution, it didn’t work in Russian in 1917.  Management experts like W. Edwards Deming, the most famous of the tough-reorganization management consultants in the drive for high quality organizations, bluntly warn that such efforts generally are destructive — the people fired are not the problem, nor do they have the authority to fix the problems, most often.  People on the front line know the problems better than anyone else, and can provide the leadership to turn organizations around, however — and for those reasons, you don’t get rid of them, if your goal is to effect an organizational turnaround.

Mr. Austin should have a framed photo of Mrs. Cobian on his desk so he must see her, every day.

Mr. Austin disagrees.

See part 2.

This series, on the dustup between Prof. Diane Ravitch and Ben Austin in California:

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