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.

More:


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:

More, different views, and resources:


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