A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Reset

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Nashville business leaders have decided that the education conversation, for whatever reason, is in need of a RESET. To begin this “reset,” the Nashville Public Education Foundation has commissioned a group out of Boston, the Parthenon Group, to do a study of Nashville’s education system. In NPEF’s words, in order to have a real conversation it’s important that we are all looking at the same data. They’ve also lined up a slew of respected voices, from Vice-Chancellors at respected universities to local school board members and respected business leaders, to help facilitate the conversation. All of it sounds very noble, but with the main event just three weeks away, something funny has happened. People have started to take a look at the players.

One of the most baffling traits of the reform movement is how they apparently think they are the only ones with access to the internet. They often try to sell stuff like it’s completely original only to have it debunked by a basic Google search. That’s what happening here. A simple search reveals some disturbing information about the group that is doing the study that will produce the data that we all will be looking at when they release their Benchmark Study this month. Data that will come through their lens.

The Parthenon Group is a worldwide organization out of Boston that consults in a variety of fields, education being one of them. A perfunctory look at their website reveals an education team lacking education experience. Almost all have an MBA and what little education experience there is comes from time spent with… wait for it… Teach for America. Okay, that’s a little troubling, but not necessarily a deal breaker. Let’s take a look at the things they’ve been involved in.

Again, just perusing their website reveals a propensity to look at avenues for their clients to make money off public education systems. In fact they seem to be quite thrilled with being able to find shortcomings in the current system. I will give them credit – they are not just trying to exploit public education here in the United States, but worldwide, including Dubai and India as well. One of the U.S. success stories touted on their site is their work with the New York City school system and the attempts to improve dropout rates. There is even a Time magazine article trumpeting this success.

Readers of Diane Ravitch are probably a little more familiar with this story. You see, this was part of the Gates Foundation’s foray into education reform. They paid the Parthenon Group to conduct a study that revealed a cause of increased dropout rates was kids attending large high schools, and they concluded that if those large schools were broken into smaller schools then dropout rates would decrease. An estimated two billion dollars was dedicated to this directive, and guess what? It failed, in their opinion. Did the perpetrators stick around and help solve the new issues they created? Nope, they just scampered off to their next data-revealed crisis: teachers and the Common Core standards.

Let’s make no mistake about the goals of the Parthenon Group: to make money for its investors. Here’s a PowerPoint Parthenon_20Perspectives_Investing_20in_20Education presentation they gave to potential investors back in 2009. It lays out clear as day how the education sector is ripe for some money making. Are we to believe that these dyed-in-the-wool capitalists have suddenly had a change of heart? Suddenly they are all about the kids and not the Benjamins? Color me skeptical.

To see more local evidence of the Parthenon Group’s work, we don’t even have to get on the internet. We just need to talk to the folks in Knoxville. That’s Rob Taylor of Knoxville talking about the Parthenon Group in the video above. In Knoxville, the school board commissioned the Parthenon Group to study their system and share their recommendations for improvement. Those recommendations included increasing class size and eliminating around 300 positions that included guidance counselors, psychologists, and librarians. It also produced the stunning comment that not all students are the same; some are more profitable than others. Knoxville paid over a million dollars for this brilliant advice.

In case you don’t want to look to the eastern part of the state, we can also look to the west in Memphis. Where a school district already $142 million in the red paid roughly $350k a month for the Parthenon Group’s expertise. The recommendation in Memphis? Merit pay for teachers with no added compensation for higher levels of education. A plan that has been proven ineffective countless times and that Memphis rejected as well. Starting to notice a pattern? Momma Bears, a Tennessee parent group, certainly did. So did another parent group Tennessee Parents.

The Parthenon Group’s missteps are not relegated to just K-12 education though. Some of you may be familiar with the Corinthian Colleges scandal. The Santa Ana company, one of the world’s largest for-profit college businesses, allegedly targeted low-income Californians through “aggressive marketing campaigns” that inaccurately represented job placement rates and school programs. Who touts Corinthian Colleges as one of their success stories and strongly recommended them to their investors? Why, none other than the Parthenon Group. Still not noticing a pattern? The pattern seems to be one of presenting ill conceived plans to clients.

Let’s be clear here, I’m not saying the Parthenon Group is the wrong group for providing data to RESET a conversation (well, I guess I am), but at the very least there is enough here that surely warrants a little digging by the local paper. But nope, they are not interested. When Nashville School Board member Amy Frogge brought these concerns to their attention, The Tennessean responded by writing a piece that focused on her not having read the Parthenon Group’s report – a report that is not yet complete and can only be read by scheduling an appointment and going down to their offices and watching a PowerPoint presentation. Numerous other Tennessean staff members negatively engaged her on social media attempting to deflect any criticism of the Parthenon Group by making her appear incompetent for not having read the report.

I personally called Tennessean reporter Jason Gonzales to discuss his article and asked him point blank if The Tennessean had a sponsorship role in Project RESET. He emphatically answered no, they are just producing a series of articles on the Nashville education system. Articles that all bear the Project RESET logo and have been a mixture of negative and calls to put aside petty politics. You know, politics that call for an equitable system for all kids. Today there was a positive article on Pre-K but it focused almost exclusively on Casa Azafran, and keep in mind Casa Azafran is a sponsor. Let me be clear, I am not questioning their work; by all accounts it’s exceptional. I just think there should be more transparency from The Tennessean. When I asked Jason if he thought that information surrounding the group conducting the study was relevant he answered with an equally emphatically no. The data from the study is important, he said, but not the conductors. Is this what investigative journalism has been reduced to?

I disagree with the position of the reporter, Jason Gonzales, and by proxy, The Tennessean. To RESET a conversation there has to be a level of trust between all parties and that requires transparency. In order for it to be a truly productive conversation, all parties need to feel there is no hidden agenda. That’s why you research the people with whom you are entering a discussion. What’s revealed shouldn’t necessarily prevent the discussion from taking place, but it certainly allows for the recognition of clues should an agenda start to be revealed. I don’t think asking our local news organization to do due diligence on the company that is providing the groundwork for the conversation is unreasonable. I am just a citizen, not a journalist, and was able to uncover the information presented here. Imagine what could be revealed by the trained eye of an investigative journalist. I understand the financial challenges news organizations face, but I can’t help but believe the readers want more information and less PR when it comes to the news.

Most citizens of Nashville trust The Tennessean. They believe the majority of things written there. They believe that the agenda set is a reflection of their own agenda, not one being driven by outside interests. They look for our local news media to connect the dots, not just write an article imbedded with random links and expect us to figure it all out.

Many moons ago, while pursuing a communications degree at Penn State, I got to cover the press conference for the search for the first journalist in space. The event was attended by the likes of Walter Cronkite, Geraldo Rivera, and such. I was fortunate to be allowed a question and asked, “The role of a journalist is to cover the news, not make it. By sending a journalist into space, are we not, in effect, subverting that role?”

Later in the day, the then Head of the Science and Technology Department came up to me and complimented me on the question. He said that he and his wife had spent the lunch hour discussing it and were unable to reach a conclusion. Tragic events with the Space program prevented the journalist- in-space initiative from proceeding, but I think the question I posed then is now more relevant than ever. I think it’s an internal discussion The Tennessean probably needs to have.

As far as the Project RESET event itself, I think as many Nashvillians as possible should attend. But they should do their research first. Then they should listen and evaluate who is saying what and is there agenda truly what’s best for Nashville. We do owe it to our children and our communities to pursue every avenue to improve a system that does remarkable work but is always in need of more solutions. I am not sure, based on the evidence readily available, made Nashville Public Education Foundation think the Parthenon Group was the right group to perform a study for this conversation and hopefully they’ll learn from it. The conversation on education is always saturated with calls for a system that holds people accountable.  In that sense we need to make sure that it’s a system that doesn’t just hold schools, teachers, and students accountable, but also politicians, consultants, and foundations. The Tennessean needs to play take an active part in that process and not just produce PR pieces for the influential.

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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.

 

Is there really a point to it all?

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eliot“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” — T.S. Eliot

That quote by Eliot has been resonating lately with me. I find myself reading about and looking at all this focus on rigor, high quality seats, and test performance, and asking myself, what does it really mean? Please don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge proponent for education, but I find myself questioning our focus. Ten years after a child leaves school, does it really matter if they scored a 20 or a 21 on the ACT, or if they are in the top 20% versus the top 5% of their class? If all that rigor does somehow translate into financial success, are our children equipped to really experience all that life has to offer? Does getting into Harvard make you any better at navigating the challenges life throws at you than say, going to Tennessee State would? If a child’s developmental years are all spent chasing some high-performance metric, how will they live when things settle into the mundane day-to-day rhythms that life always brings, or is this the generation that will break those rhythms and do nothing but exceptional things 24/7?

Perhaps that’s what it will be. Maybe the next generation will do nothing but create exceptional businesses and tackle exceptional challenges. They will read only exceptional books and listen only to exceptional music. I certainly hope not because they’d miss out on the joy of dancing around the living room to “Shake It Off” with your five-year-old or chuckling at an old episode of “Benny Hill.” It’s just that I look at this constant drum of high achievement, and I can’t see a translation to real life. I can’t help but think that we are squeezing children for their data points while leaving them ill-equipped for life. In fact, my Spidey sense tells me that we are setting unrealistic expectations and setting children up for failure. We are, in essence, producing a whole generation of former high school quarterbacks incapable of reproducing the glory days of their youth and thus failing to find joy in their present adult life. The truth is, that while we all seek excellence, the majority of us will live average lives and there should be pleasure in that. This average life has served me well.

Yesterday I was engaged in a conversation with a fellow parent about a proposed switch in high school math curriculum. They threw out the fact that their child was excelling at the current math curriculum, maintaing a 100 in AP Calculus. My first thought was, of course they are, and then it suddenly dawned on me, we only have two kinds of students in our system: those who are excelling and those the system is failing. If there are others, we certainly don’t talk about them. When was the last time you had a conversation with another parent about their child who was getting B’s and high C’s, playing in the band, not first chair but certainly enjoying it, and nobody was wringing their hands? When was the last time you heard a conversation about an average kid with average friends having an average school career, but who was happy and well-adjusted? I’m betting that if some well-meaning adult overheard that conversation, they’d quickly try to move that child into one of the two categories.

After all, with a little extra effort that child could become a highly-achieving data point. If they would just buckle down and realize how important all this was, one more adult could sleep easier at night knowing they made a difference. Or perhaps, if the narrative was needed, we could point to the lack of engagement the school was creating for the child. It could be pointed out that with more rigor, that child could grasp their full potential. This would demonstrate the failing of the public schools and the need for more charters. Would anybody consider for a moment that the child might be engaged in a well-rounded childhood, collecting experiences inside and outside of school that would produce a future well-adjusted adult?

It’s my theory, and remember I’m just a regular guy full of crap on a regular basis, that education these days is being used in a similar fashion as religion has been used in the past. My non-rigorous liberal arts education introduced me to Voltaire who said, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” My interpretation of that quote is that the vast uncertainty that is life is so overwhelming that man needs to create something in order to be able to cope with it and give it some structure. I have a co-manager at work that every time she sees my disorganized desk it literally puts bugs under her skin, and she can’t help but try to subtly move a few things to give it some order. That’s indicative of people and the world as a whole. Life is such chaos, and when confronted with it, we feel an overwhelming compulsion to try and create order.

There are countless studies available that show the world has become more secular. However, that doesn’t necessarily translate into acceptance of unpredictability. We still seek order over chaos. It appears to me that we are now grasping at education to serve as a means to control that chaos. By creating a common measurement and aspiring all to fit into its structure, we attempt to make things a little more predictable. If we can get our kids to study hard enough, score high enough on tests on subjects we deem important, get into schools that we consider excellent, that somehow they will live a life free of uncertainty and challenge. Look at the term we throw around regularly, career ready. That conveys an image of being wholly prepared to face life with no need for additional learning. We should try to instill wisdom by demonstrating how education is a tool to be used in navigating the uncertainty of life instead of a weapon capable of conquering it.

As a parent I can easily see how appealing the conquering concept is. I often find myself looking at my children and reflecting on the challenges life has dealt me. High test scores offered no protection against addiction which led to unemployment and almost derailed me for life. I think about my health issues and the challenges they provide. Even though in my head I know that as people, my children will face many of the same challenges and some unique ones, instead of praying that they have the strength and tools to overcome these challenges, I pray they won’t have to face them. In our heads we recognize the need to provide children the tools to handle life’s challenges, but our heart often overrules and defaults to protect. The problem is, this leads to acceptance of a false premise. We also run the risk of creating adults who are intellectually incurious. They have been fed the myth that they’ve learned everything they need to succeed, and thus permission is implied to become static.

Going to an Ivy League school does not offer protection from cancer. Scoring a 21 on the ACT is not a shield against addiction. Being in the the top 10% does not guarantee that you won’t be hit by a car. All the knowledge we are imparting is certainly valuable, but only if we provide the tools to translate it into wisdom. A child’s formative years should be spent showing them the richness of life and the opportunities it offers. If an impoverished child scores a 21 on the ACT, enters a top school, and makes the Dean’s list, will the doors to life magically fly open and they suddenly walk through them to a better life? I don’t know. Consider the life of Robert Peace. Robert did everything we tell our children is important. He was from the projects of Newark and escaped to go to Yale, where he excelled. Unfortunately that wasn’t enough, and his life was tragically cut short. Despite it all, in the end he was just another murdered drug dealer. I understand that this is anecdotal evidence but should certainly be used as a tale of caution. We need to do more than just teach our children academic rigor. Learning to read and add at an accelerated level is just not enough.

One exciting benefit to being a member of the Education Bloggers Network is that it plugs you into a collection of people who are weighing similar thoughts and hypotheses. Recently a comment was made about the need to redefine success. I’ve thought a lot about that over the weekend, and I have to agree. I certainly want my children to, as the Army says, be all they can be. But I want that to come with a balance. I want them to know that the pursuit of a goal is admirable unless it disengages them from living life. Laying on the front yard and contemplating a leaf for a couple hours is just as worthy an activity as spending hours preparing to be competitive in the global economy. Sometimes it is all right to just read and let the author’s words wash over you instead of focusing on the author’s intent and focus, enjoying the magical ability some authors have in bringing words together and transporting us to another world. We need to nurture the concept that it is alright to engage in an activity, be it athletic, artistic or vocational,  just for the simple pleasure it brings, without concern for mastery or outcome.

If we produce adults who drive the global economy yet fail to see the magic in life, is that successful? If we push children to develop skills so they can leave their communities behind, what happens to those communities, and is that considered successful? Shouldn’t our definition of success include the ability to navigate both the unpredictability and the mundanity that life offers? If we treat education as a competition, are we not also instilling the belief that life at its root is a competition? Teddy Roosevelt once said, “To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.” We need to keep that in mind in our relentless pursuit to make all kids career and college ready.

A popular refrain with education reformers is that “it should be all about the kids.” I’d add the caveat that we never forget that the kids of today are the adults of tomorrow. Are the data points of today going to translate into the success stories of tomorrow, and what will those success stories look like? As John Dewey once stated, “Education is not preparation for life. It is life itself.” We must never lose sight of that. We must not only fill children’s minds with the measurable but also teach them the value of the unmeasurable. We must instill that life is a journey, and you can only quit learning when you reach the final destination. As Hemingway said, “Everyman’s life ends the same way, it is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.”