There has been plenty of discussion about U.S. Secretary of Education Nominee Betsy DeVos in the weeks since your editor wrote a series of commentaries about why reformers shouldn’t support her, much less anyone in the incoming Trump Administration. The resulting discussion and sparring among reformers over DeVos exemplifies the splits that have been developing within the movement for some time. Just as importantly, the discussions around DeVos’ efforts to oppose the closing of failing charter schools is another reminder of why the movement must rally around strong accountability for all schools serving our children.
The latest example of the split came yesterday when Leadership Council for Civil and Human Rights, a prominent champion for the kind of strong accountability measures promulgated by the now-abolished No Child Left Behind Act, issued a letter calling out DeVos for her support for anti-gay rights measures and her opposition to holding charters in Detroit and the rest of Michigan accountable for poor performance.[Leadership Council also wrongly chastised DeVos for supporting vouchers. It should rethink its position on that aspect of choice.]
Naturally, Leadership Council was able to get the American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, and their vassals to sign on to the letter. But Leadership Council also got support from Stand for Children and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, two of the other key players among civil rights players in advancing systemic reform. That three key players within the civil rights wing of the movement have explicitly declared opposition to DeVos — and joined hands with traditionalists to boot — won’t make conservative and even some centrist Democrat reformers very happy. As it is, your editor’s commentaries, along with a piece cowritten by Democrats for Education Reform President Shavar Jeffries, comments from Catherine Brown of Center for American Progress, and the pronouncement last month by Teach For America has rankled them.
Conservative reformers have come out of the woodwork to back her. This included Jason Crye of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, who complained that arguments that DeVos’ place in the Trump Administration tarred school choice with bigotry were “simplistic and unfair”; and Philip Stutts, a public relations man who works for outfits such as the DeVos-funded American Federation for Children, who took to Fox News to tout her school reform bona fides. [Among other conservatives, DeVos has already won the endorsement of National Review.]
Former CNN anchor-turned-reformer Campbell Brown, who wrote a valentine to in her news outlet (which is funded by DeVos’ family foundation). After reformers and traditionalists criticized the column, Brown later announced that she wouldn’t write again about DeVos and stay out of coverage of the incoming federal official. Harvard Professor Paul Peterson, the former editor-in-chief of Education Next, wrote approvingly of DeVos in the Wall Street Journal.
Meanwhile Daniel Quisenberry, who runs the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, the lobbying group which DeVos helped cofound, took to the pages of Education Next to defend her and her record on advancing systemic reform in Michigan. Declaring that “DeVos has put kids before adults, parents before institutions, and students’ success before politics”, Quisenberry proclaimed that she would do the same as head of federal education policymaking. Expect even more public support from conservative reformers in the coming days, especially as some (most-notably the American Enterprise Institute) are reminded that the DeVos family is among their most-important donors.
But even more questions from civil rights-oriented and centrist Democrat reformers about DeVos will likely come today after they read Kate Zernike’s New York Times report detailing how the Amway heiress worked zealously this year to oppose efforts by a cadre of reformers (including Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan) to overhaul oversight of Motown’s traditional district and charter schools. The plan, which would have created an oversight board, called the Detroit Education Commission, which would have developed an A-F grading of performance for all Detroit schools, shut down failing charters, and pushed for high-quality options to be opened in sparsely-served parts of the city, was scuttled by Republicans who control the Wolverine State’s legislature after DeVos and her family reminded them who finances their campaigns. [The A-to-F grading eventually made it into final legislation that included other reforms for charters statewide.]
Some conservative reformers have already criticized Zernike’s report. Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli argues that Zernike failed to mention that DeVos opposed the creation of the school oversight board because of fears that it would end up being captured by the AFT’s local there. [Zernike responds by noting that the local lacked the influence needed to make that fear a reality, though, of course, politics can always change.] Others argue that DEC was worrisome because the board would be appointed by the mayor instead of elected. This is a strange concern given that many charter school authorizers are neither elected nor even politically appointed. A few even note (reasonably) that Duggan, who supported the legislation, also signed a measure restricting charters from acquiring city-owned property, thus making him unreliable on advancing school choice. You can also expect MAPSA and Jeanne Allen’s Center for Education Reform, both of which have strongly defended Michigan’s charter school sector from criticism, to offer more strongly-worded polemics.
As you can imagine, Zernike’s report is another reminder of a point that folks such as Robin Lake of Center for Reinventing Public Education have been making for some time: That strong accountability is key to expanding school choice throughout the nation.
Certainly over the past three decades, charter schools (along with vouchers and other choice programs) have proven that its schools help kids succeed academically and economically in their adulthoods. As Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes determined in its study of charters in 41 cities, the average child gained more than 28 additional days of learning in reading than peers attending traditional district schools. Other data has shown that charters and other form of choice improve the chances that poor and minority kids will graduate from higher education and attain lifelong success.
But as seen in Michigan, not every charter school does the job. As CREDO notes, the average child in a Michigan charter gained 36 additional days of learning in reading over a traditional district peer. More than likely, that is because of the high-quality operators within the sector; as CREDO reported in a special study on the state, 65 percent of charters in the Wolverine State perform either at the same level or worse than traditional districts, making the sector among the lowest-performing in the nation. That 14 percent of Michigan’s charters are both low-performing and do little to improve student achievement is especially troubling.
DeVos’ allies argue that Michigan has closed more charter schools than the national average. What they fail to note is that few charters close because of academic failure. Just one of the 11 charters shut down in 2015-2016 were closed because of academic failure, according to data from the Wolverine State’s Department of Education. The rest were shut down because of financial problems, low enrollment, lost its contract, or were never opened in the first place. [Meanwhile the state is looking to shut down some of the 100 district-run failure mills in coming years.]
Charters in Detroit perform better on average than counterparts in the rest of the state. On average, children in Detroit’s charter schools gain 50.4 days of additional learning in reading over their peers in the failing traditional district, according to CREDO in its urban charter schools study. But as in the rest of Michigan, the performance is driven by the high-quality schools. Fifty-three percent of charters in Detroit either keep pace or do significantly worse in reading than district schools. Just as importantly, because children in Detroit are struggling academically compared to peers in the rest of the Wolverine State, the need to replace failing charters with higher-quality options becomes ever more necessary.
Meanwhile, as CRPE has noted, Detroit also has a charter distribution problem. Most of the high-quality charters in Motown are located in the city’s downtown core, far away from the neighborhoods where the poorest children and families reside. Because Michigan doesn’t require charters in Detroit or elsewhere to provide transportation — and authorizers don’t make that a condition of approval (something that the mayor of another Midwestern hub, Indianapolis, has done for the past two decades) — poor kids are often kept from the highest quality options. What this means is that the mission of the school reform movement to help all children succeed isn’t being fulfilled for those in the most need.
The key problem lies with charter authorizers — including traditional districts — who 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 are allowed to be charter authorizers even though they lack the manpower (and, given their awful performance, even the credibility) to do a good job of it. But as Education Trust-Midwest noted in its review of charter authorizers in the Wolverine State, even the independent oversight groups do poorly in keeping tabs on charter school performance. One key reason why: They 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 also collect money from them for providing services.
Some of these issues could have been dealt with through the creation of the oversight board. In fact, the DEC could have actually made it easier to increase the number of charters serving Detroit children by assuring taxpayers and others that high-quality operators would come in to serve children still bereft of choice. But DeVos and her allies among hardcore school choice activists were far less concerned about addressing legitimate issues facing children in Detroit than with ideological opposition to any accountability (as well as the possibility that some charters would be shut down, reducing revenue for authorizers and operators alike). By successfully opposing the creation of the DEC, many of the problems remain in place.
Certainly there are reasonable concerns about putting in accountability measures for charters that can end up being regulatory strangulation of choice by traditionalists opposed to them. That failure clusters such as Detroit’s district continue to operate partly justifies some of the skepticism about holding failing charter counterparts accountable.
But as your editor noted two years ago, support for choice cannot continue without assuring taxpayers that the programs will be operated effectively and that they will do a better job than traditional districts of improving student achievement. Otherwise all we are doing is creating a second system of public education that fails children as badly as the traditional system already in place. The fact that failing districts continue to operate doesn’t justify keeping equally laggard charters open for business.
It is bad enough that DeVos is undercutting support for expanding choice by incoming President and administration that engages in race-baiting, religious bigotry, and anti-immigrant sentiment. Even worse is that DeVos has continually remained quiet and not disavowed Trump’s bigotry. But the report on her opposition to reasonable accountability for charters adds another strike against her possible tenure overseeing federal education policy. DeVos doesn’t merit much of a defense.
Your editor had plans to write about something else. But President-Elect Donald Trump’s move today to nominate consumer products heiress Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education requires me to comment. Under different circumstances with a different person as incoming president, it is likely I would politely commend her appointment. But in light of who is taking the White House in January, I can do no such thing.
Let’s start with this: At least on the matter of expanding school choice, the incoming Commander-in-Chief could have made a worse choice. DeVos has been one of the foremost philanthropists in advancing the expansion of vouchers, public charters and other opportunities for high-quality education. A longtime chairman of the American Federation for Children, DeVos has a long and admirable record of expanding school choice throughout the country.
Whether or not she would be strong on other aspects of reform, including overhauling school discipline and teacher quality, is an open question. Unfortunately, that she has flip-flopped on supporting Common Core reading and math standards that are helping more children succeed in traditional districts and charter schools. All in all, she is a mixed bag.
Beltway reformers, such as Chris Minnich of the Council of Chief State School Officers, have already issued the typical inside-the-Beltway statements declaring their interest in working with her. Traditionalists such as American Federation of Teachers President Rhonda (Randi) Weingarten decry her appointment, proclaiming that she’s the “most ideological, anti-public ed nominee” ever. Some reformers, most-notably Democrats for Education Reform and Teach For America, have correctly stood fast in not endorsing DeVos’ nomination because of Trump’s bigotry. [American Enterprise Institute education czar Rick Hess, as myopic as ever on issues regarding poor and minority children, is particularly angered by TFA’s move, accusing the teacher quality reform outfit of not “pretending to be nonpartisan”.] And conservative reformers are pleased as punch.
Meanwhile school choice advocates, especially hard-liners who oppose any efforts by states to hold those programs accountable, think that DeVos’ selection could prove to be a boon for supporting the expansion of vouchers and charters at the federal level. They are especially hoping that she will implement the long-discussed plan among such advocates to voucherize Title I funding, allowing those dollars to follow children.
Could we see a stronger federal effort on the expansion of choice? Possibly. Maybe. But as a moral men and women dedicated to building brighter futures for all children no matter their background, you have to wonder at what cost?
After all, DeVos is joining an incoming administration whose chief executive has had a long and ignominious record of race-baiting, rank demagoguery against undocumented and documented immigrants (including accusing Mexican emigres of being “rapists), and has shown little concern for black and other minority communities. Over the past week, Trump has proven even more-pronounced in his bigotry, first by naming white supremacist Steve Bannon as his top White House adviser; and then nominating Alabama U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, an opponent of all immigration with his own long history of bigotry, as U.S. Attorney General. Trump’s dedication to more-restrictive immigration policy — including a declaration to deport three million undocumented immigrants that include children already in public schools — and pronounced opposition to criminal justice reform effectively makes his administration an opponent of the very children DeVos is supposed to serve.
As the likely head of a federal agency that is charged with protecting the civil rights of children black and brown, DeVos will have to work closely with both Bannon and Sessions on enforcing existing policies as well as implementing any proposed effort to expand school choice. How can DeVos effectively expand choice for these children when the men with which she must work have demonstrated records of opposing them and their families? How can DeVos enforce the Department of Education’s civil rights responsibilities as written under the Every Student Succeeds Act when Trump is likely to push for the gutting of the agency’s Office for Civil Rights?
This isn’t just a moral issue. Black, Latino, Muslim, and other socioeconomic minority children make up half of the 50 million school-age children in America. In both the American South and western states such as California, they are the majority of children in public and private schools. The policies the Trump Administration will likely promulgate — especially on education — can damage their futures, put them on the path to poverty and prison, and destroy the communities in which they live.
Certainly DeVos will argue that she can help children while working for this administration. But the long history of American public education has proven over and over again that good intentions are slender reeds against the political machinations of the immoral. More than likely, DeVos will be a figurehead within the administration with little real influence on policy when it matters.
This includes expanding school choice. As mentioned, Trump has declared he supports voucherizing Title I funding, an idea championed by congressional Republicans that didn’t make it into ESSA last year. The challenges of making it reality still remain: That the dollars yielded from such a move would not be enough to help poor and minority families in choosing high-quality schools; that it would require congressional Republicans to write language forcing states to voucherize their own state funding systems (an idea that runs counter to the conservative demands that the federal government retreat from an active role in education policy); and that it would be opposed by suburban districts represented by those very congressional Republicans (as well as by urban districts represented by Democrat counterparts). Given the state of play these days on Capitol Hill, DeVos will likely talk a lot about choice without being able to actually help expand it.
Meanwhile DeVos’ long association with the school choice faction of the school reform movement may actually damage both. This is because DeVos’ presence essentially associates the laudable goal of helping poor and minority families gain access to high-quality educational opportunities with an incoming administration already associated with bigotry, nativism, and anti-Semitism. Certainly some reformers will argue that the laudable ends justify the means. But the ends are corrupted by the means, especially in the form of negative perception of those solutions by the very children and communities for which you proclaim concern. This will be especially troublesome for choice activists at a time in which it is becoming politically harder to make the case for expanding charters, charters, and other efforts.
Your editor cannot congratulate DeVos on her nomination. What I, along with other reformers such as Democrats for Education Reform, can do is pray that she does the right thing for all of our children, no matter who they are or where they live, in spite of being part of an incoming administration that has not one concern for them. And stand up against any efforts by the Trump Administration to damage their futures.
Read more of Dropout Nation‘s thoughts about DeVos.
When it comes to the willingness to sell out the futures of children for support from affiliates of the Big Two teachers’ unions, no public official has done so wholeheartedly than New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio. Since succeeding the reform-minded Michael Bloomberg three years ago as Big Apple Mayor, the onetime campaign manager for now-Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s U.S. Senate campaign has essentially gutted much of his predecessor’s overhaul of the nation’s largest traditional school district on behalf of United Federation of Teachers and its boss, Michael Mulgrew.
But these days, with an array of corruption allegations hurting his chances of winning a second term, De Blasio is learning the hard way that loyalty to AFT and NEA affiliates can often be a one-way street. This, in turn, should serve as a lesson to politicians who spend more time catering to the demands of traditionalists than doing right by children and communities.
As Politico reported yesterday, UFT has all but ran away from public support for De Blasio’s political agenda. Last month, Mulgrew took to the Daily News to blast De Blasio’s sensible move to ban use of out-of-school suspensions against kindergartners and children in the earliest grades, complaining that the move takes away the ability of teachers to control their classrooms. At the same time, Mulgrew has abandoned De Blasio on his efforts to reauthorize mayoral control over the New York City Department of Education, which has been in jeopardy thanks to his feuds with Empire State Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Republicans in control of the state senate. [Back in June, De Blasio won a second one-year reauthorization of mayoral control.]
UFT has also shown its unwillingness to back De Blasio in one very important way: Money. So far this election cycle, the union hasn’t given a penny to the mayor’s re-election campaign, according to data from the city’s Campaign Finance Board. [It only gave $4,950 directly to De Blasio during his first run for mayor in 2013, and spent nothing on his behalf through its super-PAC, United for the Future.] In contrast, UFT has already donated $4,950 to City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who may challenge De Blasio’s re-election bid next year.
Certainly Mulgrew has one big reason for leaving De Blasio hanging. After all, the mayor is reeling from revelations that federal, state, and local officials have launched five separate investigations, primarily on possible violations of campaign finance law during his successful campaign for mayor as well as on his unsuccessful effort two years ago to help New York State Senate Democrats regain control of the upper house (and essentially give De Blasio control over Empire State politics).
UFT’s parent union, AFT, faces scrutiny for its $350,000 donation to a De Blasio-controlled group at the center of some of the alleged violations, Campaign for One New York, which has been used by the mayor to ring up support for efforts such as increasing Empire State funding for expanding early childhood education programs (from which UFT gained new members and new revenue). The donation came just months before De Blasio signed a new contract with UFT that gives the union nearly everything it wants while increasing the long-term pension and healthcare liabilities that will be born by taxpayers decades into the future. A former UFT staffer, Jason Goldman, is also allegedly caught up in one of probes; UFT told the Daily News that it would cooperate fully with that investigation.
[By the way: UFT’s other activities during the Big Apple’s municipal elections in 2013 have already been scrutinized. One of its political consultants, Advance Group (which did $60,383 in direct work for the union that year), was fined $25,800 last year by both the city’s Campaign Finance Board and the state attorney general for concealing its work for both UFT’s super-PAC and the candidates the union supported.]
Given the stench of scandal surrounding De Blasio’s administration, as well as the mayor’s low approval ratings just a year before the next municipal election, it only makes sense that UFT distance itself from him.
But there are other reasons why UFT is abandoning its rather profitable alliance with the mayor.
For one, there’s the possible challenge Stringer, a longtime beneficiary of the union’s political and financial largesse (including $5,050 in direct contributions to his run for comptroller three years ago, along with $192,333 in independent expenditures through its super-PAC), may pose to De Blasio. The possibility of a more-pliable occupant of Gracie Mansion, someone who owes his entire political career to the union, is definitely something Mulgrew would favor. After all, Stringer has proven more than once that he will take on Eva Moskowitz, the controversial boss of the notorious Success Academy collection of charters who is one of the leading players in advancing systemic reform in New York City. That De Blasio was never the guy UFT wanted in City Hall in the first place makes it easier for the union to leave him behind.
Another reason lies with UFT’s long-term goal of ending mayoral control of New York City schools that began 13 years ago under Bloomberg’s tenure. Certainly UFT has benefited greatly from De Blasio’s oversight of the district. But De Blasio (who wants to keep mayoral control) could lose his job to a more reform-minded mayoral candidate next year, putting the union back on the defensive. Besides, ending mayoral control means putting the district back in the hands of a school board, one that UFT can more-easily influence.
Then there’s Mulgrew’s need to keep control of UFT in the hands of the Unity coalition, which has long dominated the AFT local (and is a key player in the larger Progressive faction that controls the national union). Even with all of Mulgrew’s efforts to disenfranchise members who are currently working in classrooms (and stamp out dissidents who disagree with his agenda), his declining support within UFT (including winning re-election with just 76 percent of the vote, a second consecutive decline) makes him mindful that he can’t ignore their concerns.
One of those issues: De Blasio’s sensible effort to reduce overuse of harsh school discipline that puts far too many kids (including young black men) on the path to poverty and prison. Even as the national AFT uses school discipline reform as a tool in co-opting criminal justice reform and Black Lives Matter activists, UFT’s rank-and-file members have little interest in embracing any meaningful change in how they deal with children in their classrooms.
But unlike the rancor from some in the rank-and-file two years ago over UFT’s tag-team with Rev. Al Sharpton on opposing police brutality, Mulgrew can’t simply dismiss their complaints. This is because the union’s job is to defend the autonomy of classroom teachers. The idea that teachers are the only ones who should determine what happens in schools, even at the expense of the futures of children, is a tenet of traditionalist thinking no AFT boss can challenge.
Put simply, UFT’s abandonment of De Blasio shouldn’t be shocking to anyone. Especially to the mayor himself. After all, the union only back De Blasio’s mayoral run at the last minute, only after he defeated their favored candidate, former City Comptroller Bill Thompson, for the Democratic mayoral nomination.
No reformer could have ever expected De Blasio, a longtime opponent of systemic reform, to build upon Bloomberg’s efforts. But given UFT’s weak bargaining position at the time, De Blasio could have chosen his own path on education policy. Yet De Blasio sold his administration out to UFT in exchange for a few hundred thousand pieces of fiat money for his political machine.
As part of that deal, he proceeded to give UFT nearly everything it wanted. This included the nine-year contract that increased salaries by 18 percent; actively opposing Cuomo’s successful effort to expand the number charter schools throughout the city and state; and working with the union on its successful effort to eliminate the use of test score growth data in the state’s teacher evaluation system, rendering it useless in rewarding high-quality teachers and removing laggards.
Despite the tough talk from his chancellor, Carmen Farina, De Blasio increased the number of newly-minted teachers granted tenure (from 53 percent in 2014 to 64 percent in 2016), risking the presence of laggards in the classroom for decades. Through his feuding with Cuomo and State Senate Republicans, De Blasio even put the future of mayoral control in doubt.
Having gotten nearly all it wants out of De Blasio, UFT is letting him twist in the wind. This is bad news for a mayor who needs all the help he can get for re-election. But that’s how it usually works in politics. If he loses office next year, the only thing De Blasio will have as a legacy on education policy is the damage done to the futures of Big Apple children under his watch, from subjecting more kids to laggard teachers, to shorting struggling students out of five days of additional learning time during the school year.
Children aren’t the only ones who have lost as a result of De Blasio’s kowtow to UFT. The collective bargaining agreement struck with the union two years ago didn’t require rank-and-file members to contribute more than the 4.5 cents of every dollar put toward their retirements (as of 2013-2014, the latest year available). The low member contributions, along with the salary increases and the decision two years ago to allow 777 teachers to retire early, add to the virtual insolvency of the Teachers Retirement System.
As a result of De Blasio’s fiscal mismanagement, taxpayers (including the children of today) will bear a burden of at least $38 billion (including unrealized losses of $4.2 billion), according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of TRS’ finances. [A full analysis of the Big Apple’s education pension woes will run on these pages next week.] Add in the unfunded healthcare costs for retired teachers (which also went unaddressed by De Blasio during his contract negotiations with UFT), and the high costs of the mayor’s star-crossed alliance with the union will loom large in the decades to come.
There’s a high price to be paid for carrying water for AFT locals who profit politically and financially from educational malpractice. Sadly for New York City and its children, Bill De Blasio won’t be the only one paying it.
Contrary to the opinions of many traditionalists and more than a few reformers, the much-necessary discussion about overuse of harsh school discipline in traditional districts and public charter schools should be understood as an opportunity for people in schools to revisit their practices and results, and to consider how they might adjust strategies. For those of us who focus on policy and research, it is helpful to appreciate how many people are already working on the issue.
Since the New York Times and other outlets raised new questions about the school discipline practices of Success Academy last year, I’ve heard from lots of school leaders and teachers who have been wrestling with student discipline. These are men and women who have taken great pains to engage in introspection, both about discipline as well as other practices related to instruction and leadership.
These people talk about discipline. But they also talk about school culture and how to make their schools more successful with all students. We may not always agree with the practices they may use. The criticisms, regardless of who lodges them, may be valid. At the same time, let’s admit that these people are not engaging in surprising or novel exercises.
Personal observations can never substitute for objective data and evidence. But in my own research and interactions, the school leaders and teachers I deal with are downright obsessed with keeping kids on task and with thinking about how to help more kids succeed. They truly “own” the issue of student discipline. They examine data. They look at what they are doing in their classrooms and hallways. They talk together about their values, their practices, and how to adjust what they do. They try to figure out how their practices affect how children behave. They want children to learn, want to reduce the likelihood that a few kids will act out in ways that make it hard for all kids to learn, and also keep children who are misbehaving from failing and leaving school.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Education convened leaders from charter school operators that receive replication and expansion grants under the Charter School Program. This was a group of very successful charter operators with impressive academic performance. The issue of student discipline was a big priority for the U.S. Department. I honestly came to the meeting a little anxious that there might be too much “talking down” to school people about what they needed to do, or too much defensiveness from the school operators. I was wrong on both fronts.
To its credit, the Obama Administration brought forward the issue as a real challenge that we must collectively address both in charters as well as within traditional districts. They presented the issue as one on which we should all problem-solve. Charter school operators, in turn, came to the topic equally ready to talk about the work. Perhaps because of the careful set-up, there was no defensiveness, no denial of the issues’ importance, or bemoaning how opponents were blowing a few cases out of proportion.
Instead, leaders talked about the conversations they were having with their staff, the examination of data, their brainstorming around what they do when children misbehave, and the ways they can adjust their procedures and programs to support strong learning environments while reducing the practices that lead to suspension or expulsion. They were talking about how to build consensus about the need for change, and the details of work that might make things better.
The charter school operators at the session weren’t looking to abandon their approaches to schooling. Their schools are highly successful. They have developed innovative programs — and their approaches produce results. At the same time, they realized that the current debate over discipline as an opportunity to leverage what is working well, to engage in serious introspection about their own practices, and to encourage their colleagues to change particular practices that may not always be helpful in improving student learning. All this was in order to design changes that they believe will lead to even better results for even more children.
What we have here is not a “gotcha” for opponents of school choice. The notion that some single unified approach to schooling has been shown to be unacceptable and that now we will abandon “no excuses” schooling is an incredibly simplistic and unreasonable characterization of what is going on. It is equally simplistic to argue that no introspection or rethinking of how we educate children isn’t in order. Instead, people who work in schools — people that live and breathe student behavior every day — have been stirred by events and a little external pressure to start important conversations.
There are of important mid-course adjustments in the works, and I look forward to talking with them about these changes as they make them.
Just when you thought that the latest controversy involving Success Academy was about to die down, it fans even more flames with its latest effort to blame the media. But in the process of arguing the New York Times fails to cover incidents of teachers engaging in educational and physical abuse of children in their care, the charter school operator (along with today’s report in the Times on how Success addressed the incident) once again reminds us of how it has failed to adequately address the abuses of Charlotte Dial, the teacher whose actions were revealed by the paper two weeks ago.
Since the revelation by the Times of Dial snatching and ripping the class work of the then-six year old daughter of Nadya Miranda for not answering a question to her satisfaction, then ranting that “there’s nothing that infuriates me more than when you don’t do what’s on your paper”, Success and its founder, Eva Moskowitz, have worked overtime with its allies among school reformers to argue that the newspaper has some kind of vendetta against it. On Tuesday, Success upped the ante by issuing an 11-page letter to the paper’s editor in charge of Big Apple education news coverage, Amy Virshup, complaining that the Times has focused undue attention on the operator while ignoring criminal and educational abuse of children by teachers working within New York City’s traditional district.
In the letter, Moskowitz argues that the Timeshas done little more than provide “feel-good” stories on district schools while ignoring incidents such as the arrest of Mark Valentinetti, a teacher who worked at P.S. 83 in the Bronx, for slapping of his students, as well as the return of teacher Richard Parlini to the classrooms of another district school in spite of being previously removed for spanking his students. Declares Moskowitz: “the so-called “paper of record” has to date devoted none of its considerable resources to cover these stories, let alone investigate this systemic pattern of abuses.”
Let’s give Moskowitz and her public relations staff some credit: It didn’t violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, as her previous effort last year against PBS NewsHour. Just as importantly, the letter is another reminder of the need to overhaul teacher dismissal rules and end near-lifetime employment laws that protect laggard and criminally-abusive teachers. Oddly enough, this is an issue on which the Times, along with the Daily News and the New York Post, has covered for the past few years. There are far too many criminally-abusive teachers like those cited in the letter working in classrooms and they shouldn’t be there. [If Success Academy was setting a good example on its own, its commentary on educational malpractice would come off as anything but hypocritical.]
Yet Moskowitz hasn’t proven her argument that the Times is somehow biased against the schools Success operates. For one, the paper has shed plenty of light on educational abuses throughout the district. One simple search on the paper’s own Web site reveals stories on the city’s test-cheating scandal, which has led to the firing of now-former John Dewey High School Principal Kathleen Elvin as well as the suicide of another principal, Jeanene Worrell-Breeden, who ran Teachers College Community School. The Times also covered the arrest of a school leader, John DiFiore, on charges of criminally-abusing a 14-year-old student in his care. The Times also took aim at the district’s continuing failure to do well by children trapped in its special education ghettos, as well as its failure to disclose a third of violent incidents that happened in its school buildings.
Then there’s the Times‘s two year-long coverage of the crimes of Sean Shaynak, a former teacher at the prestigious Brooklyn Tech, who pled guilty in December to abducting and showing nude photos of himself to one of the students in his care. In 2014 alone, the Old Gray Lady wrote two extensive profiles on how Shaynak managed to get hired by the district spite of a record that included having been charged (though not convicted) of beating up the son of one of his neighbors. [Both profiles, by the way, were cowritten by Kate Taylor, the reporter who is the source of Moskowitz’s ire.]
Moskowitz cites none of these stories in her letter decrying the Times‘ coverage. In fact, she seems to go out of her way not to do so. Apparently the school operator complaining about fairness doesn’t believe in extending such courtesy itself. Lucky for Success that it is a school operator, not a media outlet that subjects itself to the traditional rules of objective journalism.
One can argue that the Times could spend more time covering every incident of abuse by teachers. I wouldn’t disagree one bit. But media outlets, as entities that have deal with limited space (and even smaller budgets), have to make choices on coverage. Let’s also keep in mind that the Times is also covering other issues that also affect children beyond classroom walls. This includes reports on abuse and killing of inmates at Riker’s Island and Clinton Correctional, two major prisons that house many parents of children who attend traditional district and public charter schools. Again, Moskowitz’s argument about the Times‘ coverage has no merit.
But while Moskowitz cites examples of educational and criminal abuse of children by teachers in traditional districts, she downplays Dial’s own abuse as well as the school operator’s refusal to deal with it properly by kicking her out of its classrooms. As far as Moskowitz is concerned, firing Dial would have been nothing more than the pursuit of “better PR” at the expense of what Success considers to be a model teacher “dedicated to teaching and improving”.
But in simply suspending Dial and returning her to the classroom, Moskowitz has done little more than tolerate the kind of educational malpractice that happens far too often in traditional districts. In fact, one can argue it is even worse because Success isn’t governed by collective bargaining agreements or by state laws governing tenure and dismissal, and therefore, can more-easily rid its schools of laggard and abusive teachers. Moskowitz has actually behaved worse in this situation than your average district superintendent.
What Success has done instead is engage in a crisis management strategy geared toward protecting Dial and its own practices from scrutiny. This becomes clear from the Times‘ latest story on the teacher’s malpractice, which features an interview with Nadya Miranda, the mother of the harmed girl. As the Times reports, after Success finally showed the video to Miranda, she was asked by Success staffers to sign on to an e-mail it drafted telling the paper that she didn’t want the video released to the public. When Miranda confronted Moskowitz during a meeting about the video a week later, Miranda said the school leader told her curtly that “you had enough to say”. Miranda, along with several other parents, walked out of the meeting, then pulled her daughter from the school. The fact that Miranda and her children are homeless, and thus, struggling with other issues, makes Dial’s malpractice even more unacceptable.
Anyone who has paid attention to Success’ crisis management tactics over the past few months shouldn’t be surprised — nor should anyone else. Through actions such as Moskowitz’s unauthorized release of school discipline data on the son of Faida Geidi, Success has proven more interested in defending the outfit than in doing right by the children and families it serves. That its board members, including CNN anchor-turned-reform advocate Campbell Brown have used their own media outlets to defend Success from criticism makes clear that the organization will not address its issues even when a media outlet shines light on them.
These issues are deeply-ingrained. As former Success teachers and school leaders such as Jessica Reid Sliwerski have noted in the Times first story on Dial’s misdeed, the practice of ripping papers and embarrassing children for their learning struggles has been common practice within the operator for some time, and has been taught in professional development courses it has held. Moskowitz, in particular, is unwilling to consider that Dial’s “model” is damaging children in the operator’s care, an issue pointed out by Miranda in her interview. Add in Success’ long-documented overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh school discipline, and it becomes clear that the operator approaches teaching poor and minority children from a Poverty Myth thinking similar to that of far too many traditionalists.
Firing Dial would have been a tacit admission by Success that all isn’t well within it. Such humility isn’t possible, either for the institution, its founder, and its allies. For traditionalists looking to halt the expansion of school choice in both New York City and the rest of the nation, Success’ unwillingness to address the damage its educational malpractice does to futures of children gives them the ammunition they need to continue their own.
There is a difference between an anomaly — or a rare event or incident within a system or institution that will almost never happen again — and what is normal or tends to be the established practice within that very organization. Based on the responses to the latest revelation about the practices of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy chain of charter schools, this is something that the school reform movement must learn, especially if it is to remain a moral movement that builds brighter futures for all children.
As some of you already know, the charter school operator once again went on the defensive last week after the New York Times released a video showing Charlotte Dial berating one of her first-grade students for failing to properly show how she answered a math problem. After the six-year-old, confused by the question, began to count, Dial snatched a paper the young girl had did the work on, ripped in half, then screamed at the girl and told her to go to a chair and sit. Dial then ranted that “there’s nothing that infuriates me more than when you don’t do what’s on your paper.”
Was there anything that the young girl did that merited Dial’s response? Not according to the video. She didn’t misbehave. In fact, she said nothing. As Dial screamed at her and engaged in her own tolerated brand of misbehavior, the child meekly walked over to the chair and sat. Put simply, Dial’s behavior was educational malpractice, abusive, intolerable, and just plain unacceptable.
But as bad as Dial’s behavior was, Success’ response was even worse. After New York Times reporter Kate Taylor, who obtained the video from a former teacher’s aide, brought it to the attention of the operator, it didn’t dismiss her or even put her on a long-term suspension. Instead, Success Academy took her off the job for a week, then put her back into the classroom. After the Times ran the story this past Thursday, Moskowitz and her crisis management flunkies hastily put together a press conference in which they accused Taylor and the newspaper of teacher-bashing. [Success also put together a hashtag on Twitter, #StopBashingTeachers, that was quickly hijacked by traditionalists who have long considered Success a bete noire.]
As far as Moskowitz was concerned, Dial’s misbehavior was just another “anomaly” that didn’t represent how Success conducts its business. If anything, as far as Moskowitz was concerned, Dial was still a “model teacher” deserving of being considered an example of high-quality instruction for her colleagues. Save for a few reformers, most-notably Valentina Korkes of the otherwise reliably pro-Moskowitz Education Post, most reformers lined up behind Moskowitz’ party line. This included former CNN anchor-turned-reform advocate Campbell Brown, who sits on Success Academy’s board and runs reform-oriented media outlet 74. Despite the piece quoting one parent supportive of Dial and Success Academy, Brown accused Taylor and the Times of failing to balance the piece with even more quotes from supporters. [The Times editor overseeing Taylor’s coverage, Amy Virshup, took apart Brown’s logic.]
One would believe that Dial’s misbehavior was an anomaly — until you review the long and well-reported record of Success Academy’s bad practices.
As Jessica Reid Sliwerski, a former teacher and school leader-turned-education technologist, confirmed to the Times, ripping up student papers and embarrassing them has always been a common practice within the operator’s schools. Sliwerski should know. After all, she was one of Success’ golden children. Her work as a teacher and school leader at one of Success’ Harlem schools was profiled four years ago by Steve Brill in Class Struggle, his considerable tome on the battles over transforming American public education, as well as a companion piece in the Wall Street Journal. Sliwerski notes that ripping student papers was taught to teachers by the professional development Success runs with Touro College, while making children cry was considered within a key to having them learn. [Your editor moderated a panel featuring Sliwerski last year at SXSWEdu.]
Another sign that Dial’s action was no anomaly lies in the Times revelation last November that Success’ school in the Fort Greene section of New York City’s Brooklyn had kept a list of 16 kids who it deemed had “got to go”. Those students, by the way, were suspended multiple times by the school over the year. Nine of those children ultimately left the school. [Since the Times revelations, several families have filed suit against Success over the effort to push their children.] As she did last week amid the revelation of Dial’s misdeed, Moskowitz claimed that the “got to go” list was just an “anomaly”, even as the chain kept the principal who oversaw the effort, Candido Brown, on the job, albeit in a teaching role.
But as the families of 13 children who attended Success’ schools have detailed in a complaint filed last month with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, efforts to push out children weren’t limited to the operator’s Fort Greene locale. The parent of A, for example, noted that the principal of Success’ Harlem 4 “urged her” to pull her now-12-year-old son out of the school. Another parent, whose six-year-old attended the Harlem 3 school, was asked numerous times to withdraw the kid from the school (and wasn’t even given a re-enrollment notice). And as documented four years ago by now-former New York Times columnist Michael Winerip, Success seems to thrive on pushing out struggling and supposedly troublesome children.
Then there is Success Academy’s long-documented overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh school discipline. A year ago, the New York City branch of education news chain Chalkbeat reported that Moskowitz’s charters suspended 17 percent of its students in 2011-2012, the sixth-highest among the 12 charter operators surveyed in the outlet’s analysis of data supplied to the Big Apple’s traditional district; the 27 percent suspension rate for the outfit’s Harlem 1 school is higher than all but 13 charters surveyed. As former PBS NewsHour correspondent John Merrow noted in his controversial report on the operator last October, one Success Academy school (with 203 children enrolled) meted out 44 suspensions to just 11 kindergartners and first-graders; essentially each child was suspended at least four times during the school year.
Particularly damning is the case of a kindergartner at Success’ Crown Heights school who had issues using the bathroom. Her family is among the 13 who filed last month’s civil rights complaint against the operator. Because of her issues and Success’ unwillingness to provide the child with an aide as required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the young girls was often marked as being a discipline case for not following school rules. That it would be hard to follow school rules when you have a disability didn’t seem to occur to Success’ teachers and school leaders.
As saddening as these incidents are, they aren’t shocking. Why? Because Success has long-embraced overusing harsh discipline as a component of instruction and building its school culture. The operator’s own school discipline code gives teachers and school leaders wide leeway to suspend and expel children. Even worse, it is so arbitrary that a child can be suspended for any reason. This includes failing to sit in the “Ready to Succeed” position, “Being off-task”, or forgetting to bring a pencil to school. Despite the overwhelming evidence that overuse of harsh school discipline does little to improve student achievement, Moskowitz, with help of allies within the school reform movement such as Michael Petrilli and Robert Pondiscio of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, has strongly defended these practices and implicitly argue that Success cannot improve student achievement without them.
The most-damning evidence that Dial’s misbehavior is no anomaly became clear last October when Moskowitz released the school discipline record of one of the operators former students, the son of Fatima Geidi, a parent interviewed by Merrow for his report on Success, as part of the operator’s crisis management campaign against the piece. By doing this, Moskowitz likely violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the federal law that governs the privacy of student records, which bars Success from releasing discipline records without the permission of families. Even worse, by citing the discipline record of Geidi’s son, Moskowitz betrayed the school reform movement’s mission of nurturing and protecting the lives and futures of children. She used the life of a child who may be in need of real help as ammunition against a negative media report.
But again, this is nothing new. Over the past five months, Moskowitz has shown that she will always choose to preserve the institution she founded over being a champion for children and their families. In that time, she has shown that she is more-willing to protect the teachers and school leaders that work for Success than be defenders of the young lives who sit in its classrooms. And over and over again, like a traditionalist superintendent in a failing district, Moskowitz has demonstrated that she will explain away any incident as an “anomaly” instead of acknowledging that there may be some deep-seated issues within the institution and its model of educational practice.
At a certain point, either Moskowitz or Success Academy’s star-studded board, must acknowledge that when the institution has several incidents of educational malpractice, they are no longer anomalies. They represent the norm for the institution itself. Success Academy no longer merits a defense, especially from school reformers who, like Born-Again Christians, know better and should no longer tolerate its malpractice.
Featured photo courtesy of Chalkbeat New York.