Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Living In La La Land

April 25, 2013

If RI were a little bigger (okay, a lot bigger), it could be the crony capital capitol of the world. Because we got the crony part down cold. I mean, when it comes to sucking up to big money, we really suck.

You’re a former pro athlete who wants to start a company that’s bound to fail? Here, have 75 million dollars!

Or maybe you’re a film star who wants to promote parent trigger laws designed to destroy public schools and usher in the corporate takeover of education? Please, step up to the mic!

No? Perhaps you prefer to stay in the shadows and help run the whole racket? Oh, that’s great! See, we need someone to replace one of our cronies… Er,  this Corso fella. Don’t get me wrong, he’s fantastic at what he does. Convincing the state to give huge tax credits away to Hollywood producers so they can make their movies here was no easy task. I’m surprised he didn’t win an Oscar for pretending that it would be good for the local economy. It’s just, I don’t know, now that he’s been exposed, something doesn’t feel right. The whole crony capitalist gig seems kinda slimy all of a sudden. It was so much better when those of us “in the club” were the only ones who knew we were members.

The next thing you know, we’ll start getting invited to those living room conversations about how government and business are too chummy. Well, I sure as hell ain’t talking! Not without 75 million dollars and a film crew.

Keep Your Enemies Even Closer

April 14, 2013

As the handful of regular Bull Raker readers already know, we chose to send our daughter to private school in part to avoid what we felt was the pending collapse of the Bristol-Warren public school system. The district is in the process of losing close to a million dollars in state aid each year for 10 years, starting when Quinn entered kindergarten. After fighting about as hard as we could (short of the physical kind of fighting) and being unable to convince enough neighbors to push back against the attack on public education, we decided to send her to a school that was less vulnerable to corporate education reform… you know, the type of place where corporate education reformers send their kids!

It should come as no surprise then to learn that some of the school’s alumni, parents and trustees are Teach For America – Rhode Island supporters, including a pair of venture capitalists and the executive director of TFA-RI herself. Looks like we have our work cut out for us!

High Stakes And Low Standards

January 14, 2013

Still wondering what public education may look like if the ed deformers get their way? Then just take some of the many computer-based tests available through billion-dollar digital learning companies, who not coincidentally are playing a big role in the push for standardized testing in K-12 schools. I recently did and what I learned (or didn’t learn) was disturbing.

In preparation for my Linux+ certification exam, I took a pricy week-long on-line training program, which consisted of hours of boring lectures via videoconference. In other words, rather than using technology to teach concepts in innovative ways, as the ed deformers often claim will happen in public schools, the training company went the cheaper route… both in terms of cost and educational value. As the days wore on, I found it harder to focus on the person blindly talking to me on the screen. Fortunately, or unfortunately as the case may be, I passed the certification exam with flying colors.

How was I able to do it? Easy. Each night, we were given practice exams and asked to take them over and over again until we achieved a score of 85% or higher. It wasn’t very difficult since, after each attempt, we were given the correct answers. It was simply a matter of memorizing multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank responses. Despite misgivings of several of her students, our instructor assured us that by utilizing this strategy we were almost guaranteed to pass — as evidenced by her 95% success rate. Not until I sat down to take the certification exam at the end of the week did I realize why she was so confident, as nearly every question was identical to one we covered in a practice exam!

Standardized testing is one of many ways teachers evaluate their students. It’s not meant to be the only indicator of student performance nor is it to be used as an indicator of teacher performance (e.g. while 95% of my instructor’s students pass their exams, I doubt they retain much knowledge). The incentive to cheat or teach to the test is too high when so much money is at stake. So let’s hope the education policy-makers can find a good tutor and, unlike this standardized test taker/Bull Raker, make some informed choices!

Races To The Bottom

September 11, 2012

I suppose it’s appropriate this year’s primaries are being held on September 11th because it will mark a truly tragic event. Today will be the first time the 50CAN Action Fund has an impact on RI elections. According to Saturday’s ProJo, the 501(c)(4) has raised a $213,000 “war chest” with donations from the likes of NY City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and RI’s own self-proclaimed techie bad boy, Angus Davis. RI-CAN, the RI affiliate of 50CAN, says it has spent around $44,000 to support four “pro-education reform” Democrats, including Senate Finance Committee Chairman Daniel DaPonte and former RI-CAN board member Maura Kelly, in their General Assembly races.

Of course, this is probably just the tip of the iceberg. You see, non-profits such as 50CAN Action Fund don’t have to disclose their donors. And, ever since the infamous Citizens United ruling, these organizations can spend unlimited amounts of money on elections.  So you can bet a lot more is flowing into candidates’ pockets, like perhaps RI-CAN’s former executive director Maryellen Butke.

The Vulture Philanthropists are Circling

What’s that? You say you’re running for office and want in on the action too? Okay. Here’s the plan:

1)      Fat cats, commonly from the tech industry, donate tons to 501(c)(3) organizations like RI-CAN and Achievement First. Think of the funds as zero-risk tax-deductible investments. Well, because that’s pretty much what they are.

2)      These non-profits, run by executives, some with financial ties to the donors (such as Sandra Smith, RI-CAN board member and principal of Catalyst Strategies, whose list of clients includes Davis’ TellMe Networks), take the money and use it to try and privatize public education by building charter schools, creating digital classrooms, replacing highly qualified teachers with unqualified, non-union scabs – anything to reduce costs and increase profits, which unsurprisingly go largely to the donors’ businesses.

3)      The fats cats and non-profits then put some money into a 501(c)(4), in this case the 50CAN Action Fund. And that’s where you come in. Make corporate education deforms part of your platform and you’ll get plenty of dough to campaign against your opponents! Get elected and repeat the process every two years. It’s that easy!

Best of all, everyone makes out like bandits:

The donors can earn 100% off of their initial investments in a few years. The non-profit execs, of course, can do alright for themselves too, with charter management operators comfortably pulling down six-figure salaries. Granted, some of the windfall must be used for political favors but that’s just the cost of doing business, right?  Sure. If you’re a loyal legislator and can keep the taxpayer dollars rolling in, then it’s a bribe well spent! Besides, the donations are anonymous so it’s doubtful this scheme will ever fully be exposed.

As for you, you get the glory as the politician who saves our schools! Plus, with all the campaign cash coming your way, you won’t have to lift a finger. Just sit back, relax and let the consultants do the work. Like we say in RI, now you “know a guy”. Dealing with the angry mobs of students, parents and taxpayers could get dicey once they find out the claims of education miracles are bogus. But that’s to be expected. We both know this has never been about the kids, which is why the PR folks will want you to say the exact opposite over and over again in speeches. Oh, don’t worry; by the time the house of cards finally comes down, I’m sure you could run for Mayor of Chicago or something.

Welcome to the club!

Am I Chicken Little Or Is Everyone Else A Little Chicken?

November 19, 2011

I recently read Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon by Gretchen Morgensen and Josh Rosner. The authors (Morgensen, a New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, and Rosner, the Managing Director at the independent research consultancy Graham Fisher & Co who advises regulators and institutional investors on housing and mortgage finance issues) do an excellent job of breaking down this complex topic into understandable terms. They reveal how the financial meltdown emerged from the corrupt practices, not only of Fannie Mae executives, but also of enablers at Countrywide Financial, Goldman Sachs, the Federal Reserve, HUD, Congress, the FDIC, and the biggest players on Wall Street, which led countless officials to ignore warning signs of an imminent disaster.

As I read the book, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the factors that caused the mortgage crisis and what is currently happening in the national education reform movement. During the past two years, the Bullraker blog has been filled with posts trying to warn readers of the consequences of some of the reforms (e.g. privately-run, publicly funded charter schools and digital learning environments), which have far less educational value to students than financial value to investors, tech companies, and politicians.

However, since most of my rants seem to have fallen on deaf ears, I sometimes wonder if the sky isn’t actually falling. That is, until I read things like this excerpt from the epilogue to Reckless Endangerment:

In the fall of 2007, Johnson returned to his old playbook. It was a time for another partnership, he said, in which the public sector and private industry would join hands for the greater good. A Blueprint for American Prosperity, designed to bolster America’s cities, was put forward by Brookings in November 2007. Promotional materials for the push sounded remarkably like the homeownership push made a dozen years earlier.

The Blueprint was “a multi-year initiative aimed at creating a new Federal partnership with state and local leaders and with the private sector to advance American prosperity,” Johnson announced at its launch in Washington. “The ability of the United States to compete globally and to meet the great environmental and social challenges of the 21st century rest largely on the health, vitality and prosperity of the nation’s major cities and metroplitan areas.”

Many of the same figures were on hand for this launch who had been standing alongside Johnson twelve years earlier. Henry Cisneros, the former HUD director who had sat on the board of KB Homes with Johnson and had overseen Clinton’s National Partners in Homeownership a little more than a decade before, delivered the keynote address at the Blueprint’s launch. Brookings created a Metropolitan Leadership Council to help promote the agenda; its members included Johnson, of course, but also executives from Goldman Sachs and Target.

The Johnson referred to above is one of the most vile of the book’s villians: James A. Johnson, the former CEO of Fannie Mae and former director of Goldman Sachs and KB Home, who is now chair emeritus at the Brookings Institute. It should then come as no surprise what types of reforms Brookings is calling for in education… But yet hardly anyone locally seems concerned about the validity of the reforms. How can that be? Do people not see the connection? Are they too afraid to ask the critical questions? I don’t know, but the longer citizens go without a conversation about the inner workings of these large private-public partnerships, the more vulnerable we will be when the next economic bubble pops.

As for me, I may be going crazy but at least I’ve become bold enough to occupy the board room. Meanwhile, I highly recommend Reckless Endangerment to anyone who doesn’t understand what 99% of America is so upset about, or how inside baseball is played at the highest levels… And, no, I’m not talking about Old Hoss! 🙂

A Hard Sell

October 14, 2011

Heading into tonight’s 2nd Annual Bristol Economic Development Forum, I promised myself I wouldn’t make comments or ask questions of the panelists — a veritable who’s who on the Bullraker education deformer shit list. I wanted merely to bear witness to the encroaching corporatization of Bristol-Warren public schools… and, in a way, I got my wish.

Despite preparing two statements during the forum and having my arm raised for close to a half hour waiting to be called on during the Q&A session, I was continually passed over by the moderator (a.k.a. Bullraker gadfly, Mike Byrnes). I can’t speculate whether Mike did this intentionally, though he has made it quite clear on this blog that he disagrees with my take on the education deform movement. However, I am certain that without an open and honest debate on the topic, we risk being sold a bad bill of goods. But, let’s face it, telling the truth about the deforms would be a much harder sell. And that’s bad for business!

In case anyone out there is curious, here were the comments I intended to make:

I have responses to two statements made earlier by Angus Davis.

The first is in regard to the U.S. spending over half a trillion dollars on K-12 education per year, even more than what we pay for defense. I’m for one am glad that’s the case. In fact, we should be spending way more on education than defense. And I don’t say this lightly. I have two advanced degrees, one in Mathematics and the other in Teaching & Curriculum, and I’d much prefer to be a teacher than a defense contractor. Unfortunately, one job pays 3 times more than the other! If we believed in education, then we would fund it like we believed in it. Not cut millions from schools districts!

The second thing I want to address is the notion that “innovative” ideas, like trying to bring Achievement First (AF) charter schools to Cranston, are regarded as controversial simply because people fear change. That’s untrue. I don’t fear positive change, but I do have serious doubts about whether charter management companies like AF can bring about positive change.

Here are a few sources that back up my position and will hopefully enlighten Mr. Davis and others on the genuine criticisms of the types of reforms he espouses:

Get Motivated!: Join The Peaceful Revolution

October 5, 2011

On Monday, Providence public schools were delayed two hours in anticipation of the traffic caused by a Get Motivated! motivational seminar. When the horde failed to materialize, the cynic in me saw the overreaction to a bunch of pro-corporate speakers as simply an unsuccessful commercial made by politicians who have already shown their willingness to allow private interests to take control of public education. But, just two days later, the optimist in me now sees crowds all over the country with enough motivation to put an end to the plutocracy and restart our democracy.

For example, the majority of Americans:

Isn’t democracy a great idea? So, while the mainstream media too often covers the fake news, join a global movement called Occupy Together that is growing exponentially. Find the nearest occupation site (in my case, it’s Burnside Park in Providence’s Kennedy Plaza) and help change the world!

Campbell’s Law

July 15, 2011

Campbell’s Law states:

The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to measure.

Community activist Diana Campbell, who as far I know isn’t related to the author of the above quote, essentially applied the law in a blog  on Bristol-Warren Patch that discussed the recently passed Voter ID legislation in Rhode Island. She claimed the bill, which was supposedly designed to protect against voter  fraud (an almost non-existent crime as evidenced by the extremely small  number of cases throughout the US), will disenfranchise significant portions of our poor, elderly and minority communities. Unfortunately, the people who replied to the post don’t seem quite as enlightened as the Campbells.

Among her many job titles, Diana is a member of the Bristol-Warren School Committee. So it’s fitting that I should stumble onto Campbell’s Law while reading an article by the former executive director of the American Mathematical Society on how politicians across the country are using mathematical intimidation to push their school reform agendas. Having written on the subject of how poor mathematics contributed to Rhode Island’s unfair funding formula, I was encouraged to learn that I wasn’t  the only mathematician speaking out about the injustices of the school deform movement.

I hope Diana, perhaps the person most responsible for getting me started on a path of political activism, will read this post and also be comforted to know she isn’t alone. The voices for the voiceless could always use some accompaniment.

The Wheels Are Coming Off

June 13, 2011

Witnessing the downfall of the Bristol-Warren Regional School District will be like watching a train wreck in slow motion unless enough concerned citizens somehow manage to steer us clear of the oncoming disaster. The wheels were, of course, set in motion last year when the RI Department of Education unrolled a series of changes, including a funding formula that slashes millions of dollars from the district’s budget. Unfortunately, since then, only a handful of local residents have tried to slam the brakes on the reform (or, to be accurate, deform) movement taking place here and in school systems across the country.

Quite frankly, I’m amazed that more people haven’t questioned these educational policies, which have little to do with what actually takes place inside classrooms. Sure, high stakes tests and charter schools are fancy buzz words, but neither are the silver bullets with which their supporters wish to blaze a trail through public education. Evidently, the original intentions behind both ideas are lost on the deform crowd. Charters were meant to be utilized as laboratories for teachers to experiment with innovative curriculum, and tests as metrics to assess the strengths and weaknesses of students. In other words, charter schools and tests were supposed to inform and improve the teaching profession.

Instead, they are being used to drive and damage it. The deformers often cite poor test scores as a reason for firing teachers and closing schools to open up RI’s own version of charters, called Mayoral Academies — like the 5 Achievement First schools now proposed for Cranston and Providence. What they fail to cite as frequently, however, is that most charters don’t perform better than public schools. Hey, but at least with privately managed schools they don’t have to deal with those pesky unions anymore! With teachers’ unions out of the way, they can end all the messy labor rights stuff like tenure and collective bargaining and save tons of money by hiring inexperienced scabs to teach our kids on the cheap! It’s practically a no-brainer… because if you believe that junk passes for real education reform you might not have a brain.

Teachers’ unions definitely have problems. Their leaders don’t always represent them well… maybe because they’re too busy representing Doug Gablinske in emails, I don’t know. But trying to get rid of unions altogether will create a lot more problems than it will solve, especially since rank-and-file members didn’t cause an education crisis. Teachers aren’t failing schools. Politicians are. The next time I hear someone rail on “lazy teachers stealing from taxpayers”, I’m going to ask them to name names. Either they won’t because they don’t have the guts to defend their position, or they can’t because they’ve been led to believe in boogeymen. You know those pricy pensions that everybody’s talking about, the ones that were raided by state governments to pay for their deficits the same way the federal government has borrowed from Social Security? Yeah, those aren’t really the issue. Neither are “bad” teachers. No, to get to the heart of the matter, we’ve got to understand one reason why public funds are drying up so quickly (I mean, besides the obvious multi-trillion dollar wars and bank bailouts).

But, before that, let me just state something for the record. My wife and I believe in certain forms of philanthropy. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have worked with groups such as the Bristol Land Trust or the Bristol-Warren Education Foundation (BWEF), to name just two of the volunteer organizations to which we’ve donated time and money the last few years. A lot of good can come about through philanthropic work, but a new form of philanthropy — known as venture philanthropy — makes me more than a little wary. Venture philanthropists don’t donate to causes in good faith, they heavily invest and control them,  creating organizations which care more about short-term profits and tax evasion and less about long-term sustainability and problem solving.

Cuts to school aid, high stakes tests, and charter schools aren’t going to produce educational miracles. They are simply the vehicles which will allow for the privatization of public schools. As for teachers, they’re the scapegoats not because they’re “pigs at the trough” but because they prevent greater profit margins and have enough power to resist impending school deforms. Sadly, when I first brought this message to neighbors earlier in the year, I don’t think it was warmly received… and that’s putting it mildly. Although I now wonder if, in light of what’s happening in Cranston and Providence, it’s starting to sink in a bit.

It’s not by accident that Mayoral Academies aren’t accountable to elected school committees, but to a board stacked with pro-deform advocates. Nor is it a mistake that a RI-CAN Board Member, Kara Milner, is heading up a group in support of a school funding task force in Bristol-Warren to provide budget recommendations to the Joint Finance Committee. While her work as president of BWEF has been admirable (and taken alone might merit her inclusion on such a task force), Kara’s presence on the board of a pro-charter group should send up red flags when determining whether she should also have a say in school budget decisions. It’s easy to see how this connection to RI-CAN could be a huge conflict of interest. In offering advice on where and how much to cut from the district, she could weaken BWRSD in a way that makes charters an easier sell to desperate citizens and opportunistic politicians. Then, once the mayoral academies are put in place, who’s to stop the appointment of the pro-deformer(s) from the task force to the mayoral board? Not the school committee!

The battles in defense of public education have already proved costly on a personal level. I can’t sleep (It’s 3:30 AM!). I’m sure I lost some friends. Okay, they’re only acquaintances (People who write blogs on education in the middle of the night probably don’t have many friends.), but it still sucks! I also lost a little faith in society when I realized that ideas don’t win out necessarily on merit, but on momentum. My writing on the subject of school deform has been called conspiratorial. Even theatrical. Well, being a screenwriter by hobby, I guess I should take that as a compliment. If I were to ever write a script based on the losing fight over public education (Don’t worry, I won’t — it’s much more horrible and dramatic to watch everything happen live!) the screenplay would be a twist on a theme of one of my all-time favorite movies, the Oxbow Incident, which fittingly starred a Bristolian. Here’s a quick outline:

Crazy Train

Act I: A young family boards a train heading cross-country only to learn that it was chartered by financial terrorists and rerouted to an incomplete new track so they can bet millions on when it will derail.

Act II: The family is only able to convince a few passengers of the plot. They ruffle a few feathers. Most ignore the family’s pleas or dismiss them as crazy upon the rebuttals of the people convinced that the new route is the right way to go. The family gets off the train at the last safe stop, but continue to warn people around them of the possible calamity.

Act III: ? I haven’t gotten that far yet. 🙂

SU Math Ed Alumni Newsletter Article

April 25, 2011

The following article will hopefully appear in the alumni newsletter of the Department of Mathematics Education at Syracuse University, where I graduated with an MS in Teaching and Curriculum in 2006.

RI’s Fair Funding Formula Gets an F

Soon after graduation and the birth of my baby girl, I returned home to Bristol, RI to raise her. Like most parents, my decision to relocate was based in part on the quality of education she would receive. Unfortunately, as my daughter prepares to enter kindergarten in the fall, the Bristol-Warren Regional School District (BWRSD) is about to undergo dramatic changes — for the worse.

Last year, the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) created their first-ever educational funding formula, which reshuffled hundreds of millions of dollars across school districts. Dubbed the “fair funding formula”, it factored in student enrollment, student need, and the capacity to generate tax revenue in order to determine each district’s allotment. While a formula was obviously needed in the last place in the country without one, what we currently have is anything but “fair” since some districts, including BWRSD, are losing up to half of their state aid over the next ten years.

From a mathematical perspective, it’s difficult to call a formula fair when it ignores outliers and assumes factors for tax revenue generation capacity (i.e. wealth) and student need (i.e. poverty) are normally distributed within and across districts and around the same mean. These glaring statistical errors produced several strange results. Among the most counterintuitive was the negative effect that the poverty factor had on nearly every district in calculating the percentage of the state’s share of funding.

However, as bad as the math is, the philosophy behind the formula is worse. Nowhere does it account for costs unique to regionalized districts (such as capital projects and debt services) or for rising costs over time. But perhaps the biggest flaw is the belief that the current system is not underfunded and the formula should be revenue neutral. New slices from the same tiny old pie (only 28% of the RI budget is allocated to education – the lowest in New England) won’t suddenly make things right. As a matter of fact, quite the opposite could happen. While BWRSD and other districts begin slashing millions in services in the face of their dwindling budgets, Pawtucket and Woonsocket, two districts receiving extra money from the formula, are suing the state because they still aren’t getting enough.

So, how did the Ocean State wind up in such a mess? Well, if you were to ask members of the Bristol-Warren Parents’ Alliance, a community group I co-founded in response to the adoption of the funding formula, they would probably claim that RI is caught in the politics of a national reform movement which is more about business than education… And they’d have a lot of evidence to back them up.

School Reform or Deform?

Officials here received national acclaim for firing teachers in Central Falls and Providence en masse, lifting a cap restricting the number of charter schools per district, and for starting the first of possibly many Mayoral Academies, publicly funded regional charter schools run by private charter management companies. For its many efforts, RI was recently awarded a $75 million grant from the federal Race to the Top (RTTT) initiative. To some this may not seem too bad, unless and until they take a closer look.

While less federal and state aid is going to traditional public schools throughout the country, RTTT, tech industry elites and Wall Street bankers are pouring billions into charter management companies. Through various federal tax credits and interest payments on construction loans alone, “non-profit” charter management companies and their rich financiers are able to nearly double their investments in only seven years. Charter management companies also allow donors to retain a great deal of control over their money, meaning they can influence charter school expenditures.

By Wall Street’s own projections, the emerging digital education market will be at least $500 billion, most, if not all, off the backs of taxpayers. It’s another economic bubble waiting to be blown up by many of the same perpetrators of the housing and dot com busts. Even if charter schools were more effective than traditional public schools, the numbers just don’t work out.

Unfortunately, the findings of the most comprehensive studies on charter schools to date show that, with few exceptions, charters do not perform better than public schools. In fact, a large number actually perform worse. Charters have been known to hire non-certified, non-union teachers (whom they overwork and underpay), refuse special needs students and cut programs. What’s more, under-performing charters are often difficult to close. In other words, like many big corporations, they become beholden to their investors rather than their customers (a.k.a. our children).

Since charter schools suck up large portions of funding, even the few that are performing better are likely doing so at the expense of the traditional public schools in their districts. On top of that, charters can siphon away tax dollars by piggy backing on existing public infrastructure and they tend to keep only the best students.

Mathematics Educators to the Rescue!

The problems with the current school reform movement may at times seem innumerable, which is precisely why we need experts in both mathematics and education to help simplify the equation. Local funding should only be above and beyond what state and federal funding must provide for adequate education. Our system, which puts local districts on the hook for the majority of education spending, is what really needs to be reformed. Otherwise, it will continue to perpetuate educational inequity based on wealth.

Our background in mathematics education puts us in a unique position. We not only have the knowledge of educational philosophies but also the mathematical skills to determine the efficacy of any reform movement. With that in mind, I urge you to get involved in your community. Check out the references below to learn more, attend school committee meetings and let them know your concerns. There’s no need to “wait for Superman” when we can be heroes.


BWRSD Documents: Funding Formula Basics, BWRSD PowerPoint, 1/31/11; Talking Points for FY12 Budget Development handout, 2/9/11; Total 10 Year Loss to Bristol-Warren handout

Democracy Now! –

Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education

Education Week, Murdoch Dives Into Ed-Tech Market

Providence Journal, Reworking the formula for funding R.I. schools

RIDE Funding Formula Proposal: State Share Ratio Calculation Chart; Core Instruction and Student Success Model Chart; State Share Ratio for the Community Calculation Chart; State Share Ratio Calculation (Sending Communities Combined) handout