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July 22, 2014 standard

Back in 2011, your editor wrote a series of pieces on how school reformers — especially charter school operators and school choice activists — must learn from the issues of financial mismanagement and low academic quality that plagued the for-profit higher education sector. Three years later, scandals involving charters in Hartford and Chicago have once again served as reminders of how the bad behavior of operators can end up casting the entire sector (and the school reform movement as whole) in a bad light.

Once again, reformers need to take stronger measures to force out charter operators and authorizers responsible for letting such lapses to happen in the first place. Or else charter schools will face the same regulatory pressures that are now buffeting for-profits.

The latest reminder of the importance of good conduct came last week when federal investigations issued subpoenas to Hartford’s Family Urban Schools of Excellence, the former operator of the Jumoke collection of charters, amid allegations of shoddy hiring practices and financial mismanagement. The federal investigation came after a month of revelations by the Hartford Courant that the charter school operator’s founder, Michael Sharpe, had falsified his academic credentials, lived in a building owned by Jumoke, and overseen the hiring of a school staffer whose felony conviction landed him on a sex offender registry. There is a chance that the Jumoke schools, which have been successful in improving the achievement of the poor and minority kids in its care, could end up being shut down.

The federal probe into FUSE came a month after another charter school operator, Chicago’s UNO Charter School Network, settled civil fraud charges brought by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission related to charges of financial mismanagement, conflicts of interest, and nepotism. The agency alleged that UNO deceived bondholders about its financial condition even as it faced sanctions by Illinois state officials for handing out contracts to firms owned by the brothers of Juan Rangel, the onetime Second City powerbroker who ran the chain, as well as placing three of his relatives on its payroll. For the Chicago Teachers Union, the American Federation of Teachers local, the UNO scandal has offered it an opportunity to renew its opposition to efforts by mayors Richard Daley the younger and Rahm Emanuel to expand school choice.

Certainly both FUSE and UNO are rare examples of financial and operational malfeasance within a charter school sector that has served children well. Just as importantly, school reformers and charter school operators have condemned both for their bad acts. Both ConnCAN and the Nutmeg State branch of the Northeast Charter Schools Network issued their condemnations of FUSE this past weekend.

Yet these scandals come amid other episodes of fiscal mismanagement by charter school operators. The most-notable: The scandal that enveloped American Indian Charter Schools after a California state audit revealed that its former boss, Ben Chavis, had allegedly embezzled $3.8 million from the school during its tenure. Thanks to Chavis’ alleged malfeasance, the failure of American Indian to develop strong financial controls, and the poor oversight by its board, the schools the charter school chain operates (all of which have done well in improving achievement for the kids in its care) are under the threat of being shut down. Only a state court ruling has kept the traditional district that oversees the schools — which are its competitors in the education space — from closing them down altogether.

American Indian’s situation, along with that of FUSE and UNO, prove this reality: That criminal allegations like bad studies on charter school performance, last forever and do even more damage that good news can’t always overcome. Especially when you consider that  school choice sector is a new part of an American public education dominated by traditional districts, the fact that only 13 percent of Americans can accurately describe charters, and that traditionalists are willing to play fast-and-loose in their rhetorical and tactical gamesmanship, charter schools are vulnerable to mudslinging.

It isn’t just about rhetoric. After three decades, the charter school sector (along with vouchers and other choice programs) have proven that its schools help kids succeed academically and economically in their adulthoods. A study of 521 kids attending charter schools released this month by a team led by University of California, Los Angeles researcher Mitchell Wong determined that high-quality charters can help keep kids from engaging in gang activity and drug abuse. Rand Corp. determined in its 2009 study that students attending high-quality charters are seven-to-15 percent more likely to graduate than their traditional public school peers.

But charter schools aren’t an unqualified success. Far too many charters perform no better than traditional district failure mills. Three years ago, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute pointed out in its study of failed schools that few laggard charters are ever turned around, and even fewer are shut down; this betrays the claim made by reformers that charters, unlike traditional public schools, can be easily shut down. There are cities such as Detroit where charter schools are often performing as badly as the Motor City district’s appallingly bad operations. Add in the admittedly sparse episodes of mismanagement and fraud by charter school operators, and it is clear that reformers can’t just simply declare success and go home.

At the heart of the problem is the that charter school authorizers — including traditional districts — have been far too willing to allow shoddy charters to remain in operation long after it is clear that they should be shut down. Traditional districts such as Detroit Public Schools, for example, are allowed to involve themselves in overseeing schools even though they lack the manpower (and, given their awful performance, even the credibility) to do a good job of it. [The fact that traditional districts are allowed to oversee charters in the first place, which is akin to McDonald's having the power to watch over a Wendy's, is especially ridiculous.] But as seen in Fordham’s own woeful experience as a charter authorizing, oversight efforts by independent outfits is no guarantee of high quality.

This is because charter authorizers can often derive revenue from charters, especially through the provision of services to schools that effectively lead to conflict of interests; it’s hard for an authorizer to provide proper oversight to schools if they are also a vendor. Only Louisiana, Minnesota, Nevada, and Washington State restrict authorizers from overseeing charter operators and offering them services without a separate contract in place. Lax oversight from states is also a problem. Only Hawaii and Washington State (along with the District of Columbia) meet the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ requirements for holding authorizers accountable for their work in overseeing schools; note that Washington State has only gotten legalized charters in the past few years.

Even when charter authorizers try to hold schools accountable, they can be hamstrung by state laws that allow for charters to go for as long as a decade without their academic, financial, and operational performance being subjected to formal review, and, if necessary, be shut down. In Michigan, for example, a charter authorizer can allow school operators to go for as long as seven years without any formal review. In fact, few states require charter authorizers to conduct high-stakes reviews of school operators every five years.

The good news is that key players such as the National Association of Charter School Authorizers are pushing states and reformers to pass laws that will lead to the shutdown of shoddy charter authorizers (and ultimately, shut down laggard charters). But that work has been complicated by opposition from choice activists — especially outfits such as the Center for Education Reform — out of concern that stronger accountability could lead to fewer charters and options. This shouldn’t be shocking. One of the problems these days in the school reform movement is many school choice activists — both out of genuine concern over restricting choice and because their own finances are dependent on a growing school choice sector — have become as opposed as traditionalists to the kind of accountability measures needed to transform American public education.

What the charter school sector (along with choice activists and other reformers) must acknowledge is that the expansion of school choice cannot continue without assuring taxpayers that charters (along with other forms of choice) will operate effectively and that they will do a better job than traditional districts of improving student achievement. When charter oversight is faulty, when choice programs aren’t subjected to strong accountability and oversight, they become vulnerable to scandals that do damage to the cause of systemic reform, even if they are isolated incidents compared to their overwhelming benefits. And ultimately, it is intellectually, ethically, and morally unacceptable for charter operators and choice activists to demand accountability for traditional districts and then tell taxpayers to simply trust that the programs are working properly.

So charter players and the rest of the school reform movement must take critical steps to ensure that charters are operating properly. This includes pushing for laws at the state level that force authorizers to be more-effective in overseeing charter operators or leave the sector, as well as legislation to allow for academically- and financially-failing charters to be shut down quickly. This includes only granting charters five-year contracts. Getting districts out of the business of charter authorizing — a move undertaken by D.C. a few years ago — is also critical to improving quality.

Meanwhile the sector must also engage in more-stringent self-policing, publicly and privately shame laggard charters and authorizers to either turn things around or shut their doors. The charter school sector must embrace better approaches to financial and operational management. Given that most nonprofits are terrible at their own activities, the movement should look toward the private sector for models of better practices; this includes even embracing outsourcing of functions that school operators shouldn’t be handling on their own in the first place. It also involves crafting standards and procedures for contracting and procuring services — rules that can easily be picked up from the private sector, particularly in the healthcare field — that would assure taxpayers that charters are operating properly.

Finally, reformers must step up on public relations. This includes painting portraits of what charters are doing for their students, putting kids and their teachers front and center in campaigns, traditional and viral, and touting high-quality examples of charters that are successfully building brighter futures for kids, families, and communities. As I also mentioned three years ago, charter school operators and authorizers must also build stronger ties with communities, grassroots activists, and Parent Power groups in order to blunt opposition, especially when bad actors in the sector behave, well, badly.

The FUSE and UNO scandals offer an opportunity for the charter school sector, choice activists, and the rest of the school reform movement to address challenges can hinder the expansion of high-quality opportunities our children need. Either they take the chance now — or wait until it’s too late.


Featured photo: Michael Sharpe, former chief executive officer of FUSE, before he resigned as head of the charter school operator.

July 21, 2014 standard

Dropout Nation gang is taking off today to enjoy time with family. But there are still plenty of discussions going on today in the world of education. One of them: The role of the private sector in American public education. In this Best of Dropout Nation compendium of pieces from 2011 and other years, Editor RiShawn Biddle discusses the intellectual blindness of traditionalists to the benefits of borrowing lessons from the private sector, as well as the limits of what can applied to stemming the nation’s education crisis. These points are as important now as they were a few years ago.

Chris Cerf and Education’s Anti-Intellectualism Problem: For all the taxpayer-funded doctorates and graduate degrees that are found among the defenders of traditional public education, there is little going on among them other than closed-minded, sclerotic thinking. This lack of intellectual vigor — the ability to see the value of new concepts, the lack of understanding of economics and technology, and the rabid opposition to anyone outside of education arguing for reform — is one reason why American public education is mired in the kind of mediocrity that has fostered the nation’s education crisis.

And that lack of thoughtfulness manifests itself even more when it comes to the thought of private-sector involvement in education. From where defenders of the status quo sit, the idea public charter schools causes them to reach into their Cliff Notes versions of The Communist Manifesto, and the school reform efforts of nonprofits such as the Bill & Melinda Gates  Foundation make them so apoplectic that they toss around terms such as “kleptocracy” without any understanding of their meaning. From where they sit, the private sector is nothing but pure evil, their involvement in school reform means the end of public education and a return to the dark days of, whatever they think of is the dark days. The fact that they are as dependent on the wares of the private sector and the economic marketplace for their very sustenance (you know, since companies and entrepreneurial philanthropists are also those guys who provide such items as computers and soap, along with paying those things called taxes, which support schools), never factors into their thinking.

One example of this silly anti-intellectualism comes courtesy of incoming New Jersey Education Commissioner Chris Cerf’s move to restructure the state’s woeful education department. Foes of the new commissioner’s efforts are particularly annoyed that Cerf is getting help in this work courtesy of the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which is ponying up $60,000 for the hiring of the consultancy helping to develop the plan. Status quo critics of Cerf’s effort have complained that it is a conspiracy to privatize education. They have argued that the ties between Cerf, the consultant William Cox, and Broad (which helped Cox spin out rating service Standard & Poor’s school evaluation project to become, and counts Cerf among its alumni) makes the whole effort an exercise in cronyism. And they have speculated about the role Cox played in the Garden State’s failed effort to win a share of Race to the Top money.

Given the scope of work — and the reality that American public education remains quite public — the first complaint is just thoughtless. The cronyism argument would have slightly more merit if this was being paid out of Garden State coffers. Since it isn’t, the argument also falls apart. And with no evidence that Cox played any role in New Jersey’s Race to the Top bid, the speculation is merely that; given that the Garden State’s bid was rather problematic, unlikely to be picked even without the botched work of Wireless Generation (the consultancy that helped New Jersey assemble its bid and had Cox on its payroll for a time), and opposed by the same status quo defenders now using the situation for their rhetorical argument, that discussion is rather meaningless.

Now the critics could have considered some real questions. For one: Whether a consultant is really needed to think through the difficult question of how to revamp the organization? (My own answer is no; Cerf is just using Cox and Broad to gain cover for the overhaul he already plans to do.)  Another: Cerf and his boss, Gov. Chris Christie, failing to consider the more fundamental question of whether the current system of educational governance — including the array of local school district bureaucracies — is even necessary in the first place? Given that Christie’s colleagues, including Gov. Christine Gregoire in Washington State, are already pushing to restructure their state education governance structure, the governor and Cerf should be using this time to push for a Hollywood Model of Education for New Jersey under which district bureaucracies would be tossed out altogether and traditional public schools would essentially become charters.

But this would actually require status quo defenders to stop reading Diane Ravitch’s claptrap, applauding Sir Ken Robinson’s creativity snake oil, and fawning at Daniel Pink’s vapid treatises on motivation. They would have to ditch such dribble about “democratic education” and “authentic learning”. It would require them to embrace the use of data in improving the quality of instruction and curricula, and understand the lessons (good and bad) from the private sector about recruiting and retaining talent. And would mean picking up copies of Wired, The Wealth of Nations and Education Myths.

Overstating What Can Be Gleaned From the Private Sector: School reformers may have the intellectual vigor at the moment, but they also suffer from the problem of oversimplification. Particularly when referring to the private sector, it is far too easy to argue that the solutions to the problems of American public education can come from Corporate America and entrepreneurs. The reality is far more complicated.

One thing to remember: Private sector has a variety of players, each of which deal with different kinds of constraints. Healthcare companies and electric utilities, for example, are heavily-regulated. They struggle with the same problems faced by traditional school districts, including bureaucratic structures (and corresponding inertia) that would make the agencies that oversee them proud and state laws that restrict their profit-making activities. Those firms share little in common with a Wal-Mart and Google which operate in lightly-regulated sectors and are structured more-nimbly to compete in more-active markets. So the respective problems each group of companies have for their human resources, cost-management and other operational issues — and the solutions they undertake — can sometimes be as different as night and day.

Another problem lies in assuming that every solution applied in the private sector can work in education. One example: Teacher evaluation. As Rick Hess rightly points out, the private sector doesn’t use objective measures of performance as the sole criteria for evaluations. But Hess forgets this: The cost of a poor-performing employee impacts a company’s bottom line, causing problems for customers, vendors, shareholders, creditors and other employees. But the impact is limited because private sector firms aren’t generally supported by tax dollars. The impact of low quality teacher quality is borne by a far-larger group — including taxpayers and children — who cannot avoid impact by just abandoning brands, selling shares, dropping clients, refusing to lend money or switching jobs. There’s also the reality that teachers and teachers unions don’t trust principals to evaluate their work. All things considered, using objective student data (from test scores for students to portfolio evaluations for electives such as music) as the sole criteria may make the best sense.

There are plenty of lessons from the private sector that can be applied to education. But we think through those lessons, apply them in ways that fit the particular characteristics of the education sector, and not simplistically offer up companies as the source of solutions.

Featured photo courtesy of Wired.

July 19, 2014 standard

When it comes to efforts to expand charter schools, vouchers, and other forms of school choice, reformers tend to focus on three matters. The first? Expanding the array of options children need and deserve in the first place, including the development of course choice opportunities within districts and through online education. Secondly, they evangelize about the importance and value of expanding school opportunities for all kids; particularly among school choice activists, there is a tendency to argue that choice is the silver bullet for addressing the nation’s education crisis {(while curricula, standards, teacher quality, and accountability are given short shrift). And thirdly, they defend choice against the entreaties of traditionalists such as the Florida Education Association, the affiliate of both the National Education Association affiliates and the American Federation of Teachers that just filed suit this week against the Sunshine State’s expansion of vouchers for kids trapped in special ed ghettos.

Yet there is far more to making school choice work for all families — and it goes beyond expanding, promoting, and defending options. You have to build a strong infrastructure — from information on schools to providing high-quality data on their performance, to holding schools accountable, to providing transportation — to make choice work well. But few school choice activists and even fewer reformers give these infrastructural matters any shrift. Particularly for school choice activists of a conservative or libertarian bent (including University of Arkansas’ Jay P. Greene and Greg Forster at the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation), thinking through these issues means challenging their own ideology — especially their misguided belief that choice alone will lead to improvements in school quality and serve as the best form of accountability — as well as their own financial concerns as members of a sector of American public education.

Which is why a report released last week by the Center for Reinventing Public Education on addressing the challenges of building robust infrastructures for advancing choice is so important. It is as important for reformers to deal with the complications of choice as it is to promote high-quality options for all children.

In the report (which focuses primarily on public-school choice options — but whose lessons also apply to vouchers and other choice regimes), a team led by Robin Lake surveyed how 4,000 families utilized choice in Baltimore, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., where charter schools and other forms of school options have become the norm. The good news is that families in those cities, regardless of their socioeconomic status, are availing themselves of the school opportunities available to them; 49 percent of families whose parents are high school dropouts and graduates leveraged choice as did 59 percent of households with at least some form of higher education. The bad news? Thanks to the inattention given to the infrastructure of developing choice, using school options isn’t easy for families to do.

The problems these families mentioned are ones that complicate choice in nearly every part of the country. The first: That families, especially those whose parents were dropouts or possessed only a high school diploma, had little information on their options. This included lacking knowledge about whether their kids were eligible to even access any school choice options. Even in states and cities with robust school choice options, parents often get little information about what opportunities are even available to them. Traditional districts, in particular, do as little as possible to inform families about their options; the penchant of districts to inform families of kids in failing schools of their options in June — just as families were going on summer break — is one reason why the No Child Left Behind’s school choice provision has never worked as envisioned.

Families whose parents were poorly-educated by traditional public education (and thus, more-likely to be poor) especially struggled with getting the information they needed to know what options were available or even if their kids could access them. Forty percent of families whose parents were dropouts  didn’t know if their kids were eligible for school choice, versus 24 percent of families whose parents were had baccalaureate degrees.

Even when families get information on their options, they don’t have the simple-yet-comprehensive data on school performance (and even the success or failure of teachers working in the schools) so they can make smart decisions. For families exercising public school choice — including charters and district-run magnet schools (which limit options through race- and socioeconomic quotas) — the reality that public school data remains a black box geared more toward compliance than toward providing useful information limits their ability to truly pick schools fit for their kids. A black family with two young sons, for example, may not be able to fully know if the schools they are scouring can actually improve student achievement for young black men.

This problem extends to families in the few states where they can use school vouchers and voucher-like tax credits to access private schools. They end up only having metrics such as class size ratios, information on school accreditation, even the percentage of a school’s graduates accepted and attending college, as proxies for determining school performance. Yet three decades of research have proven that there is no correlation between class sizes (or student-teacher ratio) and student achievement, it has been shown long ago that school accreditation is as shoddy as teacher credentialing, and levels of college acceptance doesn’t tell you much about whether kids have been provided the college-preparatory learning they need to actually graduate from college. Particularly for poor families, who are the primary users of voucher programs, there is a clear and present need for better performance data.

Then there’s the matter of transportation to and from school. This is a big problem. The high cost of sending kids outside of communities, both in terms of transportation and time, remains a challenge even for the most well-off of families. For the poorest families — especially single mothers who, as Dianne Piche of the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights points out, must also deal with childcare issues — transportation can be the biggest obstacle of all. Less-educated families surveyed by Lake and her team were 72 percent more-likely than better-educated counterparts to citee transportation as their key obstacle to accessing choice.

Transportation has long been given short shrift by reformers in their advocacy for choice. While some cities such as Indianapolis require charter schools to provide school buses for the kids attending them, this hasn’t been the norm. Nor are private schools participating in voucher programs required to assist with transportation for the kids they serve. Even traditional districts do badly when it comes to transportation; a child attending a magnet school far across town may not be able to get a school bus to take them there; if a child in Naptown lives in a zone served by Indianapolis Public Schools, but attends a school operated by Washington Township in the city’s North Side, her parents have to figure out how to get her there.

All these barriers are problematic for all families. But it is especially difficult for the poorest families to overcome. Which brings up an inconvenient fact for choice advocates and the school reform movement as a whole. As much as we proclaim that school choice is especially important for our poorest children, we have not done enough to build the infrastructure needed so that it works for them and their families. While some private-sector outfits such as GreatSchools, nonprofits such as Data Quality Campaign, and Parent Power groups such as the Connecticut Parents Union have worked hard to address the information issues, the rest of the movement has given these matters no shrift.

Lake and her team deserve plenty of credit for shining light on these important challenges for fulfilling the promise of school choice. They have also pointed out some other flaws in the thinking of choice advocates. For example, school choice groups such as the Center for Education Reform tout multiple authorizers as a key to expanding the number of charters serving communities and a way to get around traditional districts who want to kibosh choice. But as Lake and her team points out in the case of Detroit (where the nine charter oversight groups — including Detroit Public Schools — have done little to provide kids with high-quality options), what likely ends up happening is that shoddy school operators end up engaging in shopping for lax authorizers who will let them off the hook for failure and won’t think through community needs . The solution may not be to get rid of multiple authorizers, but limit who can actually be allowed to oversee charters as well as restrict districts from doing such work in the first place.

At the same time, there is one other aspect of choice that Lake and her colleagues fail to address: Giving families real power in shaping education for their children beyond just choosing schools. This includes enacting and leveraging Parent Trigger laws that allow for parents and caregivers to take over and overhaul traditional district schools within their own communities, as well as requiring charter school operators to form parent-led advisory boards who can actively shape how their kids are served on a day-to-day basis.

As reformers, we must keep in mind that even if choice fully flourishes — and even if data and transportation issues are fully addressed — families are still going to want high-quality school options in their own neighborhoods. Families want to send their kids to schools that are closest to their homes because it is ideal. Particularly for single mothers, who may often have kids in early childhood education centers at the same time their older kids are in K-12, the need for high quality schools right in the neighborhood is critical.

Just as importantly, the existing traditional district schools in their neighborhoods are longstanding institutions in their communities in which they have heavily invested (especially through their tax dollars). It makes perfect sense for those families to want to charge of neighborhood schools from central bureaucracies and teachers’ union affiliates distant from their concerns for their children, or at the very least, use Parent Trigger laws to become lead decision-makers in the school with the district paying heed.

Meanwhile reformers have to keep in mind that there are many families who want to play more-prominent roles in shaping curricula, instruction, and school climates. That’s the reason why the  nation’s homeschooling movement serves nearly as many children as the nation’s charter schools (if not more), and why online learning has become popular for others. Particularly in the case of black, Latino, Asian, American Indian and Native Hawaiian communities, they may want to transform climates in existing schools in order to provide both high-quality learning and environments in which their kids can strive for success alongside peers who look like them, their cultures are reinforced and respected, and . Parent Trigger laws can help advance systemic reform by addressing an aspect of education that many reformers, especially those from white households, don’t have to consider.

Gving families greater roles in the charter schools their kids attend is important because of their natural concern for the futures of their kids and communities. Especially for families in poor and minority communities who have seen generations of outsiders bearing gifts that do little to help them, the ability to help their kids choose their way to educational heaven (as legendary Morehouse College President Benjamin Mays would say) is expected and demanded. They don’t want to be passive players in education decision-making. More importantly, for school choice activists and other reformers, we can’t afford for them to be. Systemic reform and social change cannot be fully realized without the work of networks within communities that can make things happen.

It is all well and good to advance efforts to expand school choice. But all that work will be meaningless if reformers don’t also spend time on building up the infrastructure families need to help their kids reap the benefits.


July 17, 2014 standard

Traditionalists will do anything to defend tenure laws giving teachers near-lifetime employment, even amid evidence that all it does is protect laggard and criminally abusive teachers from being sacked from classrooms. Especially now that the California Superior Court ruling in Vergara v. California, which effectively ends tenure, is now leading school reformers and Parent Power activists to file similar suits in the rest of the nation. Especially for the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, upon which their influence over education policy — and the grand bargain they struck decades ago with classroom teachers that fills their coffers to the tune of $708 million a year — is partly based, any effort to end near-lifetime employment is anathema.

So it isn’t shocking that Arthur Goldstein, an AFT union boss at Francis Lewis High School in New York City, took to the pages of the Daily News to defend tenure. But unlike his fellow NEA and AFT leaders, he didn’t bother to make the usual argument that tenure merely ensures that teachers are kept from being unfairly fired. This time, Goldstein offered a novel, yet absurd, defense of near-lifetime employment: That it allows teachers to be whistleblowers and defenders of kids in schools. The problem? The evidence doesn’t support his case.

Pointing to his own personal efforts as a teacher to help out English Language Learner students who had long been neglected by the Big Apple district, Goldstein argues that near-lifetime employment allows for him to be a strong advocate for the kids in his care without fear of reprisals by craven school leaders. Goldstein also argues that denying tenure can force teachers working hard for kids to be forced out of schools. Writes Goldstein: “[Teaching] is a tough job, and despite what you read in the papers, it also entails advocating for our students, your kids, whether or not the administration is comfortable with it.”

Let’s say this: It’s admirable that Goldstein looks out for the kids in his care. This is what all teachers should be doing. On this, he deserves our thanks. But Goldstein’s claim that he could only do this because near-lifetime employment rules keep him from being fired isn’t exactly so. As a civil servant, he is already covered under New York State’s civil service law, which provides rather reasonable protections against unfair dismissals by laggard leaders. In fact, if the New York City Parent’s Union’s Vergara suit (along with that being filed by Campbell Brown’s Partnership for Educational Equality) succeed in eviscerating tenure, Big Apple teachers would still be protected from unfair firings. NEA and AFT leaders cannot argue legitimately why teachers should be granted protections that go far beyond those given to police officers and firefighters (who endanger their lives daily and are subjected to far harsher politicking), much less other civil servants and those of us in the private sector.

There’s also the reality that Goldstein would still be protected from unfair firings if traditional teacher evaluations — which use subjective observations from school leaders with their biases (and who may themselves lack the skills to teach effectively) — were replaced with objective evaluations that use both test score growth data , student surveys similar to the Tripod student perception survey developed by Harvard’s Ronald Ferguson and Cambridge Education, and evidence of teachers undertaking successful efforts to help their students succeed. By getting rid of observations that are going to be biased and subject teachers to the predations of principals looking for revenge, good and great teachers are protected from harm to their careers. [The same kind of strong evaluations can also rid districts of incompetent school leaders who attempt vengeance on those teachers.]

Meanwhile Goldstein fails to admit is that not every teacher does this for their children. In fact, near-lifetime employment rules, along with teacher dismissal policies and the greater concern of NEA and AFT affiliates for maintaining their influence at the cost of children’s futures, even criminally abusive teachers can keep their jobs.

Some 97 Big Apple teachers and other school employees were charged with sexual misconduct over the past five years. Yet, thanks to arbitrators who are essentially appointed by the AFT’ local — along with the union’s zealous defense of those teachers regardless of guilt — the likelihood of them ever getting fired can often be remote. One teacher, Steven Ostrin, who was found guilty of sexually harassing students and even propositioning one of his young women students for a striptease; yet he was only given a  six-month suspension and a reprimand for what would be considered a firing offense in the private and even much of the public sector. [He would eventually retire.] Another criminally laggard instructor, Andrew Troup of Public School 96 in the Bronx, kept his job in spite of being found to have professed his infatuation to one of his students.

The obstacles to firing laggard and criminally abusive teachers can be even harder in other states. One of the reasons why the families of nine Southern California children behind Vergara pushed so hard is because of the Golden State’s dismissal rules, which requires a district to spend as long as seven years (and as much as $7 million) to go through a process that involves 10 different steps — including appeals before a three-person panel of the state’s Professional Competence commission that is largely slated in favor of NEA and AFT, and state courts — until a dismissal is either finalized or tossed out. Even then, incompetent teachers could keep their jobs. Two years ago, L.A. Unified was told that they had to keep special education teacher Matthew Kim on the job despite evidence of harassing female counterparts and propositioning his students. The byzantine steps, along with the length of time it takes to conduct a dismissal, and the high cost of doing so, explain why just 100 dismissal hearings were heard between 1996 and 2005, according to the Golden State’s Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Meanwhile there is little evidence that tenure gives teachers the freedom to cross the thin chalk line of silence that often protects laggards and criminally abusive teachers from damaging children, both academically and otherwise. This was clear in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where former teacher Mark Berndt was allowed to engage in at least 21 acts of what prosecutors call “lewd conduct” against children at Miramonte Elementary School over the course of his three-decade-long career. Not only did few teachers at Miramonte inform on Berndt, they even remained silent about the alleged criminal abuse of another colleague, Martin Springer, who also engaged in lewd conduct against another student. [Springer's charges were dismissed only after the parents of the child said she was too traumatized to testify at trial.] Berndt was only removed from L.A. Unified classrooms after the district paid him $40,000 just in order to get him to drop his appeal of its dismissal.

If anything, near-lifetime employment rules actually encourage silence among teachers about abuse to children by their colleagues. One reason: Because even the most-honorable teachers know that even if they report acts of criminal abuse, their colleagues can end up keeping their jobs. The possibility of reprisals against them from those teachers and those laggards willing to protect them is more than enough to keep them silent unless they are willing to risk their careers to do the right thing. Another reason is that tenure ends up fostering cultures of academic neglect and abuse in the first place. When laggard teachers know that they can keep their jobs, they are willing to aid and abet even the worst among them; after all, low expectations lead to even worse consequences.

This was made clear last year in Rochester, N.Y., where Matthew LoMaglio was convicted of second degree sexual conduct against a minor for criminally abusing an eight-year-old boy who attended School 19. Not only did teachers at the school fail to cooperate in the criminal investigation against LoMaglio — and the school leader failed to report the allegations to police as required by law — his former colleagues even wrote letters begging for leniency on his behalf to the judge presiding over his case.

Certainly you can’t just fire your way to high-quality education for kids. That’s why reformers focus so hard on overhauling how we recruit, train, manage, and reward teachers. But the status quo can’t remain ante. You can’t build cultures of genius that help all kids succeed as well as keep good and great teachers working in classrooms when near-lifetime employment rules keep even criminally abusive teachers in classrooms. And you can’t stem an education crisis that condemns 120 kids every hour to poverty, prison, and even mental anguish, if laggards and criminally-minded teachers know they can never be fired.

It is high time that we end tenure and near-lifetime employment for teachers. Our children deserve better than this.



July 16, 2014 standard

Reformers took plenty of pleasure earlier this last week when Indiana Inspector General David Thomas announced that his office cleared former Supt. Tony Bennett of alleged corruption involving his move two years ago to amend the state’s A-to-F grading system, and which affected the ratings of 13 schools (including one whose founder was a donor to Bennett’s re-election campaign). In many ways, it is understandable. Yet reformers must still remember that the clearing of Bennett’s name on corruption charges does not excuse the bad decisions he made which led to this fiasco in the first place.

As you may remember, Bennett, who had moved on from the Hoosier State’s chief school officer job to become Florida’s superintendent, was forced to resign from that job after revelations of the move by Associated Press writer Tom LoBianco (based on e-mails likely leaked to him by Glenda Ritz, who defeated Bennett for the job) led to calls for his head from both traditionalists and opponents of Common Core reading and math standards such as Jim Stergios of the Pioneer Institute. The validity of Bennett’s decision (if not the lack of transparency involved) was vindicated a month later when a Hoosier State legislative team concluded that he made “plausible” adjustments that were geared to address concerns from school operators that the new grading system didn’t measure school performance in a fair and accurate manner. But traditionalists and Common Core foes still continued to accuse Bennett of behaving in a corrupt manner, while some reformers such as Ann Hyslop of the New America Foundation still thought that Bennett engaged in “grade inflation” for a select number of schools.

Yet as Thomas has noted, there was no evidence that Bennett amended the grades as a favor to Christel House Academy South, whose founder, Christel De Haan, gave to his unsuccessful re-election campaign. In fact, the investigation validated the statements by Bennett and his allies that the move was done to deal with the variations for 165 schools with a nontraditional kindergarten to 10th grade format, as well the state legislature’s own report. Bennett only ended up being fined $5,000 for asking state education department staffers to compile lists of key donors (as well as their decision to store that list on the agency’s computers). Certainly Bennett shouldn’t be excused for this bad judgment. But this is hardly evidence of corrupt behavior.

In light of this latest clearing of Bennett’s name, you can understand why reformers are calling out traditionalists, Common Core foes, and their more-skeptical fellow-travelers for beating up on him. American Enterprise Institute education czar Rick Hess bemoaned in his Education Week column about how they engaged in the kind of “politics of personal destruction” that is beyond the pale of political battles, especially those involving systemic reform. Thomas B. Fordham Institute honcho Mike Petrilli went further, demanding on Twitter that Hyslop and Carey walk back their critiques of Bennett’s conduct.

Both men are right, at least on this: Traditionalists and Common Core foes who insinuated that the grade-letter change was driven by corrupt motivations — including the intellectual charlatan Diane Ravitch, Jim Stergios of the Pioneer Institute (who called for Bennett’s resignation from his now-former post as Florida’s education commissioner), and syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin — should apologize for rushing to judgment. What they did was intellectually unacceptable and morally wrong. All of us should follow the Golden Rule, and one aspect of that is to not make accusations before all facts are in evidence. I don’t expect any of these folks to apologize. Particularly for Common Core foes such as Stergios, taking out Bennett was a victory for their cause of opposing the standards. [Let's not even bother with the once-respectable Ravitch.] May God rest all of their souls.

Pioneer Institute boss Jim Stergios is among a rogues’ gallery of folks who should’ve been less willing to pillory Bennett on false charges of corruption.

Meanwhile Hyslop should have been a little more circumspect in calling Bennett’s move grade inflation. Sure, Hyslop was right to critique the lack of transparency surrounding Bennett’s decision to amend the grades. [More later] Hyslop was have also been on high ground to criticize how Bennett and his staff addressed the issues inherent within the A-to-F grading approach the state was implementing, and that he championed. But Hyslop should have also been more circumspect in her judgment until all the evidence came out. [Editor's Note: Hyslop tells us that she eventually wrote in a New America piece published that the reasons behind Bennett's move was "plausible" but it was still a decision that weakened public confidence in accountability.]

There are two other people who should also be called out for their conduct. The first is LoBianco, whose reporting led to the sliming of Bennett’s character. As I noted last year, his reporting incomplete and lacking in strong analysis. He failed to provide good journalism by not noting that Bennett was dealing with questions among traditional district bureaucrats and charter school operators about the validity of the A-to-F grading system since February 2012, when a dry run by Bennett’s staff showed wide swings in performance. LoBianco also did a shoddy job of reporting. He should have gone beyond the e-mails leaked to him by Ritz and asked current and former state education department staffers about the technical issues surrounding implementation of A-to-F grading. Finally, by failing to address the political motivations behind the e-mails being supplied to him — including Ritz’s battles with reformers over her attempts to roll back Bennett’s efforts — LoBianco didn’t act like a reporter shining light on complex issues.He, in effect, became little more than a political arms dealer, at best, and in the minds of some, a Mike Sitrick-like attack flack working for Ritz while on the payroll of an objective media outlet.

Then there’s Ritz, who started the entire character jihad against Bennett (and against Hoosier State reformers) in the first place. By leaking those e-mails to LoBianco instead of providing the information to the public in a more-honest fashion, Ritz behaved not as a public servant, but as a vengeful politician who only has her own self-interest in mind. By starting this act of character assassination against Bennett, Ritz essentially showed her own bad character. The good news, if one can call it that, is that Ritz is now paying her own price for engaging in politics of personal destruction. Her battles with both the reform-minded state board of education and the otherwise-useless Gov. Mike Pence has essentially weakened her ability to advance her agenda; her decision to spend $100,000 of state money to renovate her office — money that Bennett had redirected during his tenure to focus on improving student achievement — has also shown that she has no interest in helping all kids succeed. Hopefully, Ritz will lose office in two years.

Yet reformers cannot act as if Bennett was blameless. While Bennett clearly didn’t engage in bad behavior, he made the kind of bad judgments that weakens the efforts of reformers to transform public education for all children. And as a moral movement, we cannot dismiss or excuse it.

Bennett amended the grades in order to deal with problems with implementation of the A-to-F grading system as well as to avoid the likely public backlash that would come with it. Bennett’s faulty decision was also driven by another problem in his leadership: The loss of critical staff needed to address the information technology and other technical aspects of implementing the A-to-F grading system. As the Hoosier State General Assembly’s report pointed out, the Indiana State Department of Education lost three key staffers within a year of initial implementation. That brain drain, along with the apparent lack of information technology manpower within the agency, led to a series of snafus (including the aforementioned failure to eliminate the cap on student achievement growth that could count against the grades) that,along with Bennett’s aggressive deadline to put the accountability system in place by October 2012 and the underlying complexity of the accountability itself, led to Bennett’s hasty decision.

What Bennett should have done is slow down implementation. Certainly that would have been hard for him to do. After all, aggressively putting reforms in place is critical to making them stick. But in light of the loss of talent, Bennett should have announced that the agency wouldn’t release the results until November of 2012 in order to work out the kinks of implementation. Just as importantly, he should have made all of his decision-making — especially on the grade change — transparent and public, with full explanations for his decisions, and a willingness to take the heat for doing the job of properly informing all.

But by continuing on a needlessly aggressive path of implementation, Bennett sowed the seeds for another bad decision that he probably rues to this day. By not making his decision-making transparent and public, Bennett gave his opponents the ability to paint his actions in an even worse light than they deserved.

The consequences ended up being politically grave. Not only did he end up allowing his opponents to damage his reputation, he also  jeopardized systemic reform efforts in Indiana, Florida and the rest of the nation. Bennett’s decision to not be transparent about the grade changes had hampered efforts to provide high-quality data that families, policymakers, researchers, and others can use to make smart decisions. As is, A-to-F grading wasn’t exactly ready for prime time. But Bennett’s decision and the controversy arising from it has raised even more questions about its validity as well as that of other accountability systems, playing into the hands of traditionalists and districts who want the status quo to remain ante.

Particularly on Common Core implementation, Bennett’s decision gave foes of the standards a tool to force him out of public office, and, in the process, get rid of another prominent supporter for high-quality standards that can help all kids, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, get the college-preparatory curricula they need and deserve. Bennett’s presence in advocating for Common Core would have been especially helpful in Indiana, where legislators moved this year to kibosh their implementation.

Reformers have to remember that one bad decision can have so many devastating consequences. They must also remember that while the behavior of Ritz and others is deplorable, it is also coin of the realm. Education will always be subject to political gamesmanship. So conduct becoming is the best weapon against such machinations, especially since reformers are going to be the first to call out the bad decisions of traditionalists. If Bennett was transparent in his decision-making in the first place, opponents wouldn’t have no weapon to use.

Ultimately, reformers must remember that like born-again Christians, we have publicly declared that we behave and conduct ourselves differently than those who defend traditionalist thinking. Because of our public declaration, and our dedication to the movement’s moral mission, we cannot engage in the same type of behavior and excuse-making as traditionalists who excuse policies and practices that condemn the futures of our children. This means that we cannot excuse Bennett’s bad decision-making even as we rightfully criticize traditionalists and Common Core foes for their wrongful rush to judgment.

Your editor hopes that Bennett returns to the public stage, has learned from his mistakes, and once again take his well-deserved place as one of the nation’s foremost reform-minded state education leaders. Bennett certainly deserves criticism for how he handled the grade change. But we will all make mistakes and deserve second chances. Now, more than ever, we need bold champions for the systemic reforms our children need. And as a movement, reformers need to learn the lessons from this fiasco even as we properly celebrate Bennett’s vindication.