I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Education "Reform": The Wrong Conversation

Jennifer "Edushyster" Berkshire has been having a series of conversations with some of the titans of reforminess. As Peter Greene notes, Jennifer is just about the most charming (and consequently disarming) person you'd ever care to meet; it's not a surprise, then, that she's been able to rope in some of the biggest names in education "reform" for her blog posts.

Her latest sit-down is with one of the better-knowns of a new breed of "reasonable" reformer: Peter Cunningham, creator of Education Post. I'll confess I haven't followed Cunningham's site religiously, but near as I can tell he's running a farm system, bringing up a bunch of hot prospects to push back on folks like Jennifer and Peter and me and others who don't buy into the reformy argument.

Except that pushing back isn't the ultimate goal; instead, apparently, we're supposed to lay aside our policy differences on tenure and testing and charter schools, all for the sake of kids. Because, in the "reasonable" reformer's mind, there's just oodles of stuff we can all agree on.

Take, for example, school funding. As Cunningham himself has recently said:
Instead of a tiresome debate around accountability, we agree on simple measures of progress and shared responsibility among teachers, principals, superintendents and taxpayers.
The only way to achieve this vision in a decentralized system like ours is with a much bigger federal investment. Today, 1-2 percent of the federal budget goes to K-12 education, while 16-20 percent goes to defense, when you include the wars. But education is the real defense industry of the 21st Century so let’s talk about shifting a few percentage points from unwinnable wars and unneeded weapons programs toward public education.
Conservatives will insist we also talk about entitlement reforms that could shift dollars from the elderly to the young. We should all welcome that conversation, including those of us who no longer have kids in school and are busy tracking our retirement portfolios. Our collective interest trumps our self-interest.
Now that is a very interesting framework; it deserves some unpacking.

What Cunningham is engaging in here is an argument I called Jonathan Alter out on years ago. Alter coined this position the "Grand Bargain": teachers would have to be held accountable in a system that he didn't care to define specifically; in return they would get "a lot more pay."

As I said at the time, the details in these grand bargains are never fully spelled out -- yet we teachers are expected to agree to them, like saps at the worst used car dealer you could imagine. Ask the teachers in Newark, for example, how their "grand bargain" worked out.

Cunningham isn't down at the teacher level, but his argument runs parallel to Alter's: we'll shift more money into education, so long as we get to keep expanding segregating "choice" systems, and keep ranking teachers using innumerate test-based measures, and keep closing "failing" schools (even though that is itself a failed strategy -- and Cunningham, of all people, should know this).

But notice where Cunningham gets his money for this grand bargain: either the defense sector, or, as an outcome of a conversation "we should all welcome," the elderly. But there is no mention in Peter Cunningham's world (so far as I can find) of raising taxes on the wealthy to pay for better schools for children in economic disadvantage.

Thank goodness I'm not an old, crusty cynic. Because, if I were, I would point out that Education Post is funded by multi-billionaires Eli Broad, Michael Bloomberg, the Walton family, and an anonymous plutocrat -- the very people who have benefitted from our historical income inequity and our historically low taxation rate on the wealthy.

Thank goodness.

What I'll instead focus on is this idea of "shifting a few percentage points" of the federal budget to education. Remember, Cunningham was a part of the Obama administration's first term; he was there back in 2009 when the fight to get stimulus money into the economy was being waged. In Cunningham's own words, President Obama was a champion of funneling more money into the schools:
First of all, this argument overlooks obvious areas of agreement among reformers and unions. For example, most reformers join teachers in supporting more funding.
It’s worth remembering that the pro-reform Obama administration provided nearly $60 billion to save some 400,000 teaching jobs during the recession. This money came with no strings attached and dwarfed the administration’s “reform” initiatives. [emphasis mine]
See, there is common ground after all! Sure, us critics of "reform" may have a problems with the havoc that Race To The Top wreaked, what with its segregating charter schools and innumerate teacher evaluations and expansive and unnecessary testing regimes...

But RTTT was nothing compared to the massive amount of money the Obama/Duncan/Cunningham administration poured into education! $60 billion dollars! That's amazing...

Isn't it?
States are providing less per-pupil funding for kindergarten through 12th grade than they did seven years ago -- often far less. The reduced levels reflect primarily the lingering effects of the 2007-09 recession. At a time when states and the nation need workers with the skills to master new technologies and adapt to the complexities of a global economy, this decline in state educational investment is cause for concern.
Our review of state budget documents finds that:
  • At least 30 states are providing less funding per student for the 2014-15 school year than they did before the recession hit. Fourteen of these states have cut per-student funding by more than 10 percent. (These figures, like all the comparisons in this paper, are in inflation-adjusted dollars and focus on the primary form of state aid to local schools.)
  • Most states are providing more funding per student in the new school year than they did a year ago, but funding has generally not increased enough to make up for cuts in past years. For example, Alabama is increasing school funding by $16 per pupil this year. But that is far less than is needed to offset the state's $1,144 per-pupil cut over the previous six years. [emphasis mine]
Peter Cunningham wants us to believe that our neo-liberal president went to bat for expanded school funding and that, in exchange, we should support his plan of more tests, more charters, more closed schools, and more test-based teacher evaluations.

But the truth is more complex. Yes, President Obama did get that one-time shot of funds for schools; he then preceded to back off of a sustained increase in funding, leaving our nation's schools largely worse off fiscally than before the recession.

Overall per pupil spending in the US decreased both in 2011 and 2012 under the Obama administration. Maybe I missed it, but I didn't hear folks like Peter Cunningham making a big stink about this. Certainly, there wasn't as much ASCII spilled about funding over at Education Post as there was about how vitally important it is to implement Common Core.

I guess foisting new, "better" standards on schools is far more important than figuring out how to come up with the funds to actually meet those standards.

But if you happen bring up this incongruity, you're obviously someone who just doesn't care enough about the wee ones. At least, you don't care as much as Peter Cunningham:
So the real open question is, who are the real progressives?
Are they the ones protecting educational jobs for teachers or the ones trying to improve educational outcomes for children? Are they the ones insisting that better education cannot overcome the effects of poverty or the ones insisting that it must?
Are they the ones insisting that traditional public schools are the only option for kids or the ones fighting to give low-income parents more options?
How about this, Peter: are they the ones making excuses for a society that allows the largest child poverty rate in the developed world...

... while simultaneously overseeing an inequitable education funding system -- all while screaming for "accountability" from teachers and schools who do not have the funds necessary to educate all children?

Cunningham wants to have a "better" conversation about education.What he fails to understand is that he's having the wrong conversation to begin with. Because there are millions of people doing necessary jobs in our society who are living hand-to-mouth right now -- and a few more charter schools and a few more tests and a few more fired teachers aren't going to make their lives any better.

When Peter Cunningham is willing to stand up to his funders and look them square in the eye and say: "pay up," I'll answer his question about who the "real progressives" are. Until then, I can only dream about his problems:
EduShyster: Last question. StudentsFirst pays bloggers to promote its particular brand of education reform on social media. How is what EdPost does any different?
Cunningham: I don’t know that it is. We hire bloggers and we subsidize bloggers who are already out there and who we want to support or give more lift. I think it’s fine. As you know, I have all this money. I have to spend it. [emphasis mine]
Peter, you have all this money because they have all this money. And they have all this money because we don't get to tax them properly so we can fund schools and address childhood poverty.

Have you ever stopped to think about this?


ADDING: As if on cue:
Today, teachers unions, and their mostly white middle-class allies, have an organized, well-funded effort underway to retreat from accountability and evade any responsibility for educating disadvantaged children. Their strategy is clear:
  • Deny the public the data that shows which schools, teachers and students are struggling.
  • Blame the parents for being poor.
  • Deny those parents an opportunity to enroll their kids in schools of choice, some of which are doing a much better job preparing their kids for college and for life.
  • And endlessly and relentlessly demand more resources without any real responsibility for spending wisely and getting results. [emphasis mine]
I'm sure that just as soon as the unions agree to every policy of Cunningham's, he'll get right on to explaining how he's going to provide those resources...

Any minute now...


Michael Fiorillo said...

Hmm, this person expects teachers to give up their professional autonomy and rights at work, in exchange for some pie-in-the-sky "promise" to increase salaries and education via cuts in the defense budget?

Wow, not only does the duplicity and disingenuousness of the so-called reformers have no limits, but they have even less respect for our intelligence than I thought, which is really saying something.

As you said, JJ, it's bait and switch, and these people would put the slimiest used car salesman to shame.

Robert D. Skeels * rdsathene said...

Once more the Duke exposes these neoliberal corporate reformers for what they are.

NY Teacher said...

Attention all edu-fakers!
JJ was kind enough to post a picture of birds with their heads in the sand instead of where reformers have safely hidden theirs.

Under NCLB we have accumulated 14 years of disaggregated data (that we didn't even need)to identify struggling students and their zip codes. What the hell are you waiting for? If your call for testing as a civil rights issue is at all for real, why the delay? Where are the resources? Show us the money for Arne's sake. Where are the quality pre-K programs and much smaller class sizes that would give us the best chance to help? You are all so full of disingenuous BS that your arguments are embarrassing to listen to. Those of us in the trenches that actually understand and care and work and fight daily against inequities that you created find you and your bullshit spiels all rather pathetic. Time to look for the next shiny thing with an even shinier ROI.

Laura h. Chapman said...

McKinsey & Co. devised a scheme to save money while increasing teacher salary, provided teachers would give up job security, pension plans, work a longer day, work more days in a year, supervise novice teachers and aides in classrooms with 100 students. Novice teachers would work their way up through several tiers of job classifications, each offering proof of their “talent” for teaching.
All teachers would agree to a salary based on an annual evaluation scheme. Job security would depend on successive years of “high quality” ratings. Any setbacks in that performance would mean you were demoted to a lower job classification, with a lower salary, and would need to construct a high quality record again in order to get another shot at the highest pay.
The money ”saved” by cutting pensions, killing unions, eliminating other monetary perks (e.g. for advanced degrees), plus herding kids into larger classes (aided by technology of course) were money-savers…to the financial gurus.
With minor revisions the McKinsey white paper become the USDE’s program called R.E.S.P.E.C.T. an acronym for “recognizing educational success, professional excellence and collaborative teaching.” Part of this program enlisted teachers, including board certified teachers and White House Teaching Fellows (some of these TFA-ers) to organize “chats” and discussion groups all over the country in order to promote this vision of the profession and identify the forms of resistance to it.
This is to say that the schemes to hold teachers accountable, eliminate unions, and install pay-for-performance have been rolled into and out of boardrooms so clueless that the instigators have to invent a scheme to get “feedback” from persons who are willing to do that for a stipend and the aura of working on a White House/federal program to “improve” the profession of teaching.
You can find out more about the R.E.S.P.E.C.T. concept and branding scheme here. www2.ed.gov/documents/respect/blueprint-for-respect.pdf

The McKinsey “discussion document” is here www2.ed.gov/documents/respect/discussion-document.doc‎