BALTIMORE: A HARBINGER OF THE FUTURE

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11112This week I watched the events of Baltimore unfold on my television, and I read the comments on social media. I can honestly say none of it surprised me. Even when Jeanne Allen jumped in with her tweet claiming charter schools could save society, I wasn’t shocked. I’m still waiting for Teach for America to identify and capitalize on their “champion of the uprising.” And let’s be honest, it is an uprising. The people of Baltimore are not reacting to an individual act, but a national epidemic.

 

You can only disfranchise and separate people for so long before they get angry. People will only express themselves peacefully if they feel they are being heard and their needs addressed. If the perception is different, eventually that frustration is going to erupt in violence. That’s not a matter of a wrong way or a right way to behave; that’s just a fact of life. Unfortunately, we are creating a society that is so fractured that we can not begin to understand the experiences of our own fellow citizens, which causes us to put our value judgments on their behavior instead of being able empathize and find a solution.

 

Allen is not the first charter proponent to argue that type of school doesn’t matter, that we should be focusing on “good schools” not “type.” Choice proponents have repeatedly argued that not all schools are a good “fit” for all kids and that we should all get to choose the right school for our child. That all sounds good, but what that translates to is a stratified system only focusing on the measurable and eventually leading to a segregated society. One that because of a lack of shared experiences, results in people putting their needs in front of society’s needs.

 

We see the violence erupt in Baltimore, and it seems like a foreign country because we have no concept of what other people’s day-to-day lives look like. We see a grocery store burn, and we never take into account that the owner, due to patrons living in a food desert, may have been price gouging the community for years. We just assume that community members can go to another store with better prices if the grocer was over charging them. For some, that’s not an option. A friend who lived in a food desert once told me their local fast food place never offered specials. They didn’t have to. Their patrons didn’t have the ability to shop anywhere else.

 

In his recent book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Robert Putnam uses individual stories of children he went to school with in the 1950s and compares them to stories from the kids of today. He doesn’t paint the 1950s as an idyllic time, but instead shows how all kids went to school side-by-side and developed an understanding of the challenges each faced. That doesn’t hold true today. Between choice and charter schools we’ve created a system where like kids go to school with like kids. Students can graduate knowing how to read and write above grade level but not know a single child who lives in poverty or a single wealthy child. The diversity that is offered, because we give lip service to its importance, comes attached with phrases like, “controlled diversity” and “managed demographics.” The true meaning of those phrases is segregation, and it’s a potentially devastating problem.

 

One of the reasons my family made a home in the neighborhood where we live is because of its diversity. I wanted my children to grow up in an environment where they are exposed to all kinds of people with all kinds of lifestyles. They don’t have to like everybody, but they need to make their judgments based on experience and knowledge, not supposition. I wanted my children exposed to “unmanaged demographics.”

 

They attend a school that is 70% English Learners (EL) and 90% of its students live in poverty. It’s also a damn good school, though test scores don’t necessarily reflect that quality. My wife and I believe that this well-rounded education is essential to who my children will be as adults. However, the proliferation of charter schools in my neighborhood has begun to peel off high performing students from public schools. This leads to a higher population of English Learners in public schools, and an increased focus on programs that address their needs, potentially resulting in fewer programs for non-EL students.

 

We put so much emphasis on annual standardized tests that if the school doesn’t double down on addressing the needs of its increasing EL population, it risks being labeled a failure. Currently an edict has been issued in our school zone that all new teachers must be EL-certified in order to be hired. On paper that sounds good, but what about that 5-star teacher who moves from a rural district and wants to teach at a local school but may not be EL-certified? What gets sacrificed with the increased focus on English Learners, and does it force non-EL parents to make hard decisions about where to send their children? The push for “choice” could have the affect of robbing many parents of their “choice”.

 

This same scenario plays out with special education students. The result, whether intentional or not, is a more segregated school. A former head of TFA Nashville, Shandi Dowell, once told me that children of color are not in the classroom to be social experiences for white children. When she said it, I bought into it, but now I’m calling bullshit. How is that adult white person ever going to be able to watch the news, like the scene unfolding in Baltimore, and even begin to understand the root of the anger if they’ve never had that cultural experience? How can a person of color make their needs understood if they’ve never interacted with a white population? If we can’t empathize with each other, how can we even begin to address our societal issues? Our public schools have always given us a reasonably safe place for children to start conducting these experiments, but adults are now actively stealing those avenues away from us in the name of “choice.”

 

One of the most telling statistics from the recent CREDO study on the performance of urban charters was the disparity in the results for black, Hispanic, and white children. In math, black children gained the equivalent of 36 additional days of learning and Hispanics gained 22, while white children lost 36 days. In reading, it was blacks 26 days and Hispanics 6, but white children lost 14 days. To my untrained eyes, that is very disturbing because it would indicate to me that something very race-specific is transpiring; this is further evidence of the segregation of children in our schools. Unless different children from different races, and economic classes, truly have different abilities to learn and I don’t subscribe to that for one second. If charter schools were truly beneficial, they’d be beneficial to all, not just certain sub-groups. They would take all kids not just the ones who’s parents are involved enough to get them enrolled.

A recent study out of Stanford illustrates the benefits of students attending a diverse school that incorporates social emotional learning. Per the study “By attending to these needs as well as academic content, schools can foster trust, safety, and community among students and adults in the school; change students’ beliefs about education and themselves as learners; reduce the threat of stereotypes and biases about students’ potential and ability; and enable students to cultivate skills that render education meaningful and relevant.” Think about the ramifications of that and how students who graduated from such a school will be very well prepared to search for solutions to the issues that we as a country face.

 

It has long been my position that schools are vital in the shaping of tomorrow’s citizens. The immeasurable is every bit as important as the measurable. While turning out a literate society is certainly important, what is the good if people don’t know how to apply those skills? Charter and choice proponents apparently don’t share this view. They are focused on schools that generate high test scores or are compatible with individual kids to the point of being willing to close schools that don’t generate the desired stats or that do more to make adults look good than to prepare children for the future. They appear willing to create separate educational systems that further divide us in order to justify numbers that show no correlation with future success, meanwhile giving us less and less common ground in which to find solutions to our social challenges.

 

As long as we continue to implement policies that allow us to separate individual members of our society from each other, scenes like this week’s will continue to play out more and more. Until we address the growing inequality in our country, we will continue to see further uprisings. Investing in our public education system is a good place to start. We need to recognize that education is not just about passing tests, but learning to be good citizens. Education is as much about the collective as it is the individual. We need to stop believing when people tell us that the type of school doesn’t matter and start believing in our public educational system. Or else, we will see more and more disenfranchised people, more and more inequality, and a continued rising anger. Teachers and schools cannot solve every problem but they can give us the foundation to find our own solutions.

 

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Time to End the ASD Fiasco

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achievementFiling a Freedom of Information Act(FOI) or Open Records request, as it sometimes referred to, is always an interesting proposition. Over the last several years, I’ve filed several and to be honest, most have been worthless. Sometimes depending on who the agency is, you’ll get a little insight into the inner workings of a government entity, but for the most part, what you don’t get is more interesting. A few years ago, I filed an FOI with the Tennessee Department of Education to include all emails involving Teach For America. The returned file was rather light. Only when I reminded them that over half of the Department of Education’s leadership were TFA alumni and that I found it hard to believe that there was so little conversation involving TFA did they suddenly remember that they “forgot” to include the 6 million dollar Race to the Top contract. Ooops.

It then became crystal clear on how it all works when once I went up to the Department of Education offices to pick up an FOI request. As I was picking up my packet, I looked across the room to see then-Commissioner Huffman texting away on his phone. It didn’t take me but a minute to realize how most communication took place at the DOE and that I would never be privy to most of it. My other favorite strategy they employ is to tell you it will take a couple weeks to fill a request, and then when the due date arrives, they send you a link to a public web site. That’s what they did with my latest request for all copies of financial audits for the Achievement School District.

Go ahead and take a look. I will show you more of what we’ve come to expect from the Tennessee’s ASD, which is more sloppy work and inattention to detail. Since inception, its been nothing but one issue after another for the ASD. In the past they’ve failed to report their per pupil spending, even though all other districts were able to. Back in September, reporter Ezra Howard analyzed the state data and showed that local efforts in Memphis were performing better than the ASD. October came and Bluff City, an education blog out of Memphis, reported the city in near revolt against the ASD.  To close out the year, they engineered a hostile takeover of a Nashville school.  Perhaps a few more Happy Hours are needed.

When looking at this audit it becomes clear once again that the Achievement School District’s forte is not in the details. Details like, failure to have contracts overseen and ensuring that they are in compliance with regulations, allowing Charter Management Operators to get paid before they paid their vendors, and billing salaries to the wrong programs. The amounts of money are albeit small and therefore for many not that concerning, but I would argue that, when coupled with the entire body of evidence, it shows a pattern of behavior. A pattern that is not beneficial to the students or the tax payers of the state of Tennessee.

Here’s a quote from the audit

During the audit, we were told that ASD experienced high turnover in its Public Grants Manager position during the fiscal year. We also determined that when the position was vacant, no other employee assumed the role of reviewing and approving invoices in order to mitigate the risk of paying inaccurate, unsupported, or fraudulent invoices. By not ensuring that invoices are properly reviewed, approved, and adequately supported, ASD runs the risk of paying CMOs for activities that are not allowed under federal program requirements.

So let me see if I get this straight. The ASD had a revolving door in the Public Grants Manager’s office, and when somebody didn’t happen to be available when an invoice needed approval, well they just cut the check anyway. I guess they figured they’d work it out later. I would think, though, that this position is kind of important. Shouldn’t some effort have gone into stabilizing it? Perhaps since the ASD is fond of using TFA temps, they figured a temp is a good fit for any job, and they just contracted a local temp agency and filled the position that way. After all, when nobody is holding you accountable why should you take time away from writing PR pieces and doing self declared victory laps to keep up with the money? When we entrust the school districts of Tennessee with our most prized resource  – our children – and they fail to put processes in place to protect those resources, then they are failing the citizens of Tennessee, and that should be unacceptable no matter what the level.

Here’s another little tidbit from the audit:

Before entering the invoice into Edison, ASD’s Accounts Payable Clerk is responsible for verifying that the Public Grants Manager has approved the invoice and that the invoice amount requested is within budget. However, during our review of the 12 invoices charged to the SIG program, we found that the ASD Accounting Manager and Accounts Payable Clerk processed 5 invoices, totaling $477,166.14, without the documented approval of the Public Grants Manager.

What do you need approval for? It’s only a half million dollars.  Chris Barbic, the head of the ASD, is fond of saying that the Achievement School District is different from the traditional school district in that 100% of the BEP follows the student. That other districts are encumbered by high central administration costs. I’m thinking a couple of those central administration positions might be a good thing for the ASD in helping them avoid mismanagement of federal and taxpayer funds. Unless, of course, you’re just following the lead of your former boss who showed similar tendencies. It’s all about patterns.

A few years ago I oversaw a summer camp for kids. I would preach to my staff the importance of modeling and how kids will pick up your behaviors when you think nobody is looking. The ASD likes to preach accountability. Students must accept responsibility. Teachers need to accept responsibility. Administrators and schools need to accept responsibility. Well then, when does the ASD accept responsibility? When do they start to become accountable for mediocre results and sloppy book keeping?

If the the ASD was working off a successful model, these issues could be chalked up to growing pains. Innovation doesn’t burst from the incubator without flaws. That’s is not the case here though. Unfortunately, Louisiana provides us with a case study to examine. As Mercedes Schneider, an educator and a researcher from Louisiana, documents, it is not a pretty picture nor a successful picture. Michigan also has a “Achievement District” with similar results. Put it all together and you get the picture of a failing experiment that uses our kids as test subjects. An experiment that we may not even be able to accurately measure for a couple years. My children did not sign up to be guinea pigs for an academic exercise.  There is a little to much at risk for that.

That very risk is what causes us to grasp at the straws that the ASD offers. Unfortunately for them, there are alternatives that have already shown positive results. Community schools address the very issues that hinder a child learning and offer wrap around services that combat them. They foster a sense of community vs a sense of disruption. They bring communities together without segregating them. Just think of the results that would be possible if Community Schools were funded like the Achievement School Districts have been funded. Unfortunately for the reformers, there’s not as much chance to turn a profit in a Community School, so I’m sure that hurts their appeal.

Luckily, there are a couple of State representatives that are wise to what’s going on. Representative Bo Mitchell has introduced a bill that will dissolve the ASD. His Senate counterpart is the esteemed Thelma Harper. Senator Harper has not made a long and storied career by attaching herself to bills with no merit. I can’t predict how far this bill will get, but I do know that it’s high time some accountability was brought to the Achievement School District. Mr. Barbic and his minions have long showed a lack of respect for the priorities of elected officials or community members, and that can’t be allowed to continue unabated.

Governor Haslem has made a welcome change at the top of the Department of Education, but like with any illness, the body can only heal when all of the infection is removed. Chris Barbic and the Achievement School District were brought here by Kevin Huffman through their shared experience as Teach For America members. Time proved that Kevin Huffman was not a good fit for Tennessee. Time has also shown that TFA is not a great fit for Tennessee. They are a part of the past and Tennessee needs to look forward. It’s time to add the Achievement School District to that list of failed experiments and embrace policies that will take us into the future, before the damage is irreversible.