Tuesday, July 28, 2015

What I Learned by Writing a Book about Teaching

Six years ago, I sat down to start writing a book about teaching. I already knew a great deal about teaching.

I spent most of my adult life in a classroom, after all.

I admit here, as well as in my book, that I knew nothing about heart surgery and almost nothing about plumbing. I served with the Marines during the Vietnam War. I’m no hero though. I was a clerk in a Camp Pendleton, California supply unit. I don’t know diddly about combat. So I don’t pretend I do.

I only know teaching.

Writing a book about the art of educating young people proved interesting and I learned a great deal in the process. For starters, I learned that people who know nothing about teaching seem compelled to write books about teaching.

Most of these books add nothing to a reader’s understanding and the worst (and there are many) may do actual harm.

It would be no difficult task to provide a long list of examples, but let me limit myself to but one. If you’ve never heard of Wendy Kopp, she’s the young college graduate who founded Teach for America back in 1989. Kopp quickly became the darling of school reform circles, quoted widely in magazines and newspapers, showing up with alarming frequency on cable news TV. Kopp was always happy to offer insights about teaching. Most of those insights centered on the idea that we needed to get more smart people—people like Kopp, who attended an Ivy League institution—into teaching. To paraphrase her message, the teachers we had were just dumb.

Kopp has three books to her credit, including Teaching as Leadership, which I find amazing. Not the book. No. I mean the fact Kopp has written three books about teaching without teaching.

(Call me Dr. Viall! I hereby claim to be a renowned heart surgeon!)

I don’t know if my particular book will sell. I do know I know more about teaching than Ms. Kopp and probably the top fifty “school reformers” combined. (Millions of frontline educators could say the same.) And I’m proud of the message I’m trying to relay. Two Legs Suffice: Lessons Learned by Teaching is intended as a defense of all good teachers, one classroom combat veteran’s attempt to explain what good teachers can do—which is much—and what they cannot do without help.

I already knew, the day I began writing, that there was potential in every child. I already knew that my job as an educator had been to tap that potential in every way possible. What I learned while writing was that reformers like Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee held frontline educators to an impossible standard. “Good” was not good enough. Even “very good” was akin to failure.

Oh no. They were prone to making bold statements like: “Every child deserves an excellent teacher.”

(More on that in a moment.)

Even a gifted writer like Amanda Ripley could offer up simplistic lines like the following, in a Time magazine article about education in 2010: “We now know that it is possible to teach every kid, even poor kids with wretched lives, to read, write and do math and science at respectable levels.”

I knew, of course—because I actually taught—that it was possible to teach every child. I had always felt that in my bones. I had lived by that philosophy in my own classroom for thirty-three years. But I knew what millions of dedicated teachers know, what Ripley did not, because Ripley never taught. “Yes, you are right,” we might have told Ms. Ripley, “but we have been in combat, so to speak, and you have not. It is possible to teach every child. It certainly isn’t easy and trying with all your heart and soul can wear you out.”

I remember a young man in my class back in 1981. He was absent 140 days in seventh grade alone. In the end, we had little choice but to fail him, because citing parents to court on four separate occasions didn’t help.

The next year he missed another 108 days.

Was it possible to teach him? In theory, it was. In reality, however, it was a daunting, depressing challenge. It’s easy to say, as a magazine writer, that it is possible to teach every child. It can be hard if you’re a teacher in this situation—unless, maybe, you possess some telepathic power.

What did I learn while writing to add to what I already knew from experience? I learned that these kinds of attendance problems were a national problem. I learned that researchers at Johns Hopkins University were reporting 10-15% of all U. S. students piled up a month or more of unexcused absences annually.

I kept hearing school reformers insist that every child deserved an excellent child. I kept wondering. Why isn’t anyone saying, “Every child deserve an excellent pediatrician?” Or: “Every child deserves excellent parents.”

At the same time, I learned our representatives in Congress had no idea what they were doing when it came to writing education policy.  These were the boneheads who gave us No Child Left Behind in 2002, who promised every child would be proficient in reading and math by 2014, who could not fix that flawed law even after it had clearly and catastrophically failed. And I learned that our lawmakers have spent eight years trying to recraft NCLB and still can’t agree on details.

What else did I learn?

I learned that pundits agree. Teachers are the problem in U. S. education. Kopp and many others think we’re stupid. Some say we’re too protected by unions. Some enjoy insulting teachers for the fun of it. Brent Staples, for example, put a finger on the “problem” in our schools when he claimed in a 2010 editorial that, “Public schools generally do a horrendous job of screening and evaluating teachers, which means that they typically end up hiring and granting tenure to any warm body that comes along.”

(I had to put down the paper for a moment and check my temperature to see if I could still be a teacher. Okay: 98.6°. I still could.)

I knew the day I retired in 2008, that I had always loved teaching. I knew, because students told me, that I was good in the classroom. I knew, by observing peers, and talking to students and parents, that most of them were good too. Excellent? Yes, some were excellent too.

Generally, I think excellence is rare in any field.

I do know I never once looked down a hallway at school and thought to myself, “Teachers. Yeah. We’re the problem.”

Here’s what I knew before I wrote single word for my book. I knew the boy who spent months living in a rusted out station wagon was going to struggle in school no matter what members of the staff at my wife’s school might do.

I learned by writing that 2.5 million American children were homeless for at least part of every year.

I learned that reformers insist “poverty” is an excuse teachers trot out so they can evade responsibility for failing to educate every child. That’s what Joel I. Klein, chancellor of New York City Schools, said in 2009. And, again, it almost goes without saying Klein never taught at all.

Klein’s big idea was to grade schools. I thought we might need to talk about “grading parents” or “grading society,” too.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a former Marine. I believe in the power of motivation. I knew that my motivation as a teacher meant much. I also knew I did not teach in a vacuum. I knew education was a stool with three legs. I knew educators were one. Students were a second. Parents were a third.

Unlike all the arrogant school reformers, who offer up bold plans, but never bother or even dare to lend a hand, I knew we couldn’t improve education if all we planned to do was “hold teachers accountable.”

I knew that could never work.

I knew, because I met thousands of parents in the Ohio community where I worked, that most moms and dads were good, just as most educators were good. I knew some parents were excellent, too. I also knew parents were like a shadow, their influence and the values they inculcated in their offspring following them to school.

I knew, because I had tried teaching, that the boy whose schizophrenic mother came to my wife’s school and tried to kill the principal with a large butcher knife must face terrible problems in the home.

I knew the girl in my class who had been sexually abused by her father and older brother had problems that I might not be able to solve.

I would often wonder what we were going to do—as a society—to help children who suffered terribly, not in school, but at home. What were we going to do for the infant whose father beat her and stuck her in a freezer to stop her from crying? For the toddler whose mother filmed her smoking marijuana?

(Go to YouTube and search: “Pot Smoking Toddler” if you want to watch. I find it too depressing to even provide a link.)

You couple multiply these cases out into the millions. Why, then, weren’t all the bold school reformers focusing on parents responsible for three million cases of child abuse and neglect every year?

Yes, every child did deserve excellent teachers. But excellent parents would trump that every time. What about that third leg of the stool?

I already knew (because I had studied my colleagues for years), that principals and school counselors and psychologists were often overwhelmed by complex competing demands. I knew the situation had worsened as the focus on standardized testing grew.

I knew lawmakers at the state and national levels had failed to provide adequate funds, at least for the poorest schools.

I didn’t know—but learned while writing—that the United States had one of the highest poverty rates for children of all the advanced countries on the face of this green and blue earth.

I knew that as a society we did not do enough to help children growing up under trying conditions. I learned while writing that life was hard for all kinds of kids—that 2.7 million children had at least one parent behind bars.

I learned that 23 million Americans over the age of 12, nearly one in ten, were addicted to alcohol or drugs. (This included 1 in every 15 high school seniors who admitted smoking marijuana daily.)

I learned that a plague of prescription drug misuse was sweeping the nation, that in Scioto County, Ohio, 10% of babies were born addicted to drugs. I knew teachers weren’t the only leg to the stool.

I listened to the school reformers talk and talk and talk about how we needed more and more standardized tests. We had to “hold teachers accountable.” I tried to understand how standardized testing was going to fix all this societal mess.

I did learn we spent at least $1.7 billion on standardized testing every year. I wished we could have taken that money and used it to beef up children’s protective services in every city and state in the land.

I knew from seeing the damage in my classroom, and the damage done to my two oldest kids, that even good parents were having increasing trouble—with the American family (including my own) battered by divorce and other negative forces. In 1950, for example, 6% of children in this country grew up in single-parent homes. By 2012 that figure had soared to 35%.

I learned that poverty does matter, not just in schools, but in hospitals, too. When it comes to life expectancy, the richest 10% of American men could expect to live eleven years longer than the poorest 10%.

I learned that in Chicago, Arne Duncan, who went on to be U. S. Secretary of Education, had been credited with “fixing the schools.” Sadly, after he left for Washington those schools didn’t stay fixed at all. Hundreds of school-age kids were shot and wounded every year in the Windy City. Gangs were the main cause.

In 2013, according to NBC News, Chicago had 100,000 gang members. Most were between the ages of 16 and 19.

I thought that seemed like a problem educators alone might not be able to solve, certainly not by “grading schools.”

I learned that critics seemed to have sweet kindergartners in mind when they talked about “saving every child.” I knew none of them had ever had to face down an agitated teen with a gun in a hallway at school. I knew they were not considering children with severe emotional problems. I knew, because I taught, what that could be like. In 1984 I had a young man bring a gun to school to shoot me.

I was lucky in that case; but I suppose we all learned—by watching the bloody news—that violence in America’s schools was rising steadily. I learned that since January 1, 2010, there have been more than a hundred shootings in and around our nation’s schools, with more than 250 teachers, students and bystanders killed or wounded.

I could never figure out how creating more charter schools was a priority, when the halls of the schools we already had were running crimson with blood.

I did learn while writing that school reformers, including the corporate types out to make a few million quick bucks, knew nothing about the problems frontline educators faced. And frankly, I learned that they didn’t really care. (Well, about anything besides money, I mean.) I learned that they blamed tens of thousands of real educators for creating “dropout factories.” These were schools, reformers howled, where teachers were rap-tap-tapping along some diabolical assembly line. We were purposely creating dropouts. The corporate types would stop us. They would create a business model for education that truly worked! (Translation: worked for them.) Secretary Duncan, perhaps the most clueless individual ever to hold his cabinet position, warned that there were 5,000 “dropout factories” spread across the United States.

I kept writing. I kept learning. I learned that pregnant teens were far more likely to drop out of school.

I learned in Ohio, that the law made it illegal for kids to drop out before age 18, without parental permission. Yet, 23,000 Ohio teens walked away from schools every year and never returned.

I learned a great deal more while writing about teaching. But I already knew a lot. I knew that the growing fetish for standardized tests had been crippling education and stifling learning in multiple ways.

I learned by writing, and by talking with hundreds of educators in the seven years since I retired, that the negative effects related to testing were growing worse with every passing season, like a metastasizing brain tumor.

I already knew, because I served with the United States Marines, because I pedaled a bicycle across the United States twice (with my role model Bruce Jennings, a young man who did it in 1976 with only one leg), because I worked with 5,000 teens, that there was one clear path if we wanted to improve what happened in schools.

I already knew everyone involved in education or interested in helping would have to be willing to pedal to reach their goals. I knew that two legs (and sometimes one, and even none) would always suffice.

So I wrote my book.

Now available Amazon.com.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Coming Soon To Glendale: The Eckstein Cultural Center

The good old days weren't really that good.
Separate school for African American students in Glendale, Ohio.

RECENTLY, I SAT DOWN WITH BILL PARRISH, a local artist and businessman, to discuss plans for the old Eckstein School, here in Glendale, Ohio. His plan can be boiled down to a single sentence: “What are we willing to do to inspire the next young artist, singer or actor?”

For those who live in Glendale, the Eckstein School is a reminder that the “good old days” weren’t nearly as good as we sometimes like to believe. Starting in 1915, Eckstein was where “the Negro children” of Glendale, grades K-8, went to school. Bill’s two older sisters, Stephanie and Cheryl, attended Eckstein briefly, until the Princeton City School District closed it in 1958.

By the time Bill was old enough to head off to school, Eckstein was shuttered. He attended Glendale Elementary and says there he “thrived.” As early as kindergarten he was already showing an artistic bent, although, at age six, he had no definitive plans to become an artist when he grew up. He does remember his kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Ertel, encouraging him to draw. “My teachers were always amazed I drew people that looked like people,” he laughs, “with real squirrels leaping out of trees.”

(Black squirrels—even dead ones—are another focal point of Glendale history.)

He laughs again and admits that he and Shane, his best friend, fell in love with Mrs. Lisle, their second grade teacher. The boys cried at the end of the year, knowing they’d be leaving her class forever.

(Bill admits they let a love note or two on her desk during recess when they were in third grade.)

Mr. Parrish, right.

Mr. Parrish was always a good student and mentions various teachers who inspired him during his school career. Mr. Barrett, his eighth grade math teacher, stands out. In Barrett’s class, Bill went “beyond what I thought I could do.” Barrett had faith in kids, including smart kids who “didn’t necessarily test well.” So Parrish took a greater interest in math. Still, art was “his passion,” and he realized even as a young man that it was important to “use the gifts he was given.”

“He gave kids permission to learn,” Bill explains. As a former educator, I nod agreement.

He calls Larry Knarr, who handled eighth grade American history, “the very best teacher I ever had. Today I know the Gettysburg Address by heart because of him. He made learning fun. He created the atmosphere were you really wanted to know as much as you could.”

(I don’t think any student, fifty years from now, will ever say that about standardized testing. That concerns me, deeply. I’ll say more on that in a moment.)

Even when he went on to Princeton High School, Mr. Parrish thought of art class as a place where he “enjoyed a break.” He still didn’t see art as a career. In Ms. Miracle’s sophomore expository writing class, however, he illustrated all the stories he wrote, filling margins with pictures. Art, he says, “helped me understand what I couldn’t put into words.” Ms. Miracle might have complained—might have warned him not to clutter up his manuscripts—but instead she encouraged the young man. “Her words of support gave me confidence,” Bill remembers today.

(Today, schools across the United States have been forced to cut art to make time for test preparation.)

He mentions other educators who inspired him. Then he asks the kind of question that nags at me these days, in what I call the Age of the Standardized Test: “How do we measure inspiration?”

I find myself wondering: “How do we evaluate education with tests involving only answers A, B, C and D?”

I retired in 2008, after a long career with the Loveland City Schools, but much of what Mr. Parrish has to say troubles me even now. I’m not worried because he’s wrong. I’m almost sure he’s right. “The beauty of my learning experience,” he explains, “was that I had teachers I loved, I loved wanting to learn under them.”

He too doubts that standardized testing is the right model in education. “I’m not sure getting back to that landscape of learning…I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to that, but I want to do my best to create that atmosphere.”

That’s where his plans for the old Eckstein building—to be renamed the “Eckstein Cultural Arts Center”—should interest the community and anyone who cares about learning in all its permutations and disguises.

Mr. Parrish went on to earn his college degree at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. In the end, he followed his passion to become an artist, only later branching out to business and consulting. A year ago he said goodbye to Chicago and returned to Glendale, where he began putting together a business plan for the old school. Financial matters are now well in hand, he says. Important art organizations stand ready to help, including the Art Academy, the Fitton Center and Greenacres Art Center in Indian Hill. Now it’s a matter of waiting for the Glendale Village Council to attend to legal details and turn over the building in order for renovations to commence.

The opening of a new Eckstein will be an opportunity for “generations still to come.” The Center will offer a wide variety of classes in writing, painting, acting and more. Unlike the Eckstein of old, the new facility will be open to all. Mr. Parrish has already talked with people from the Cincinnati Autism Center, for example, and autistic children and adults will be welcome.

Listening to his story, you can’t help but be encouraged by what he plans to do. Bill has faith in the young. He has talked with kids at Glendale Elementary, at Saint Gabriel’s Catholic School, and Bethany School. “The kids are telling us they don’t have issues working with kids with special needs,” he says with a smile. During one meeting he noticed that two children who had been in attendance earlier were missing. But he couldn’t remember who they were.

A helpful second grader tried to jog his memory: “They’re the two who are gray.”

It took Mr. Parrish a moment before he realized the missing children were mixed race. “They weren’t ‘black’ or ‘white’ in the minds of kids today. You mix black and white, you get gray. They could have said ‘bi-racial,’” Bill laughed, “but it was just the natural way they see others today.”

I mentioned that I had witnessed the same trend during my three decades in a Loveland classroom.

There’s nothing wrong with “kids today,” Bill and I agree. In fact, they’re less likely to be racist or homophobic than their parents were, far less likely than members of more distant generations. Gender is no issue at all. They accept that boys and girls can do—equally—whatever they want. And, as Bill has noticed, they’re far more accepting of classmates with special needs.

No. Kids today are fine.

In any case, Mr. Parrish envisions the Eckstein Cultural Arts Center as a gathering place for kids, ages 5-18, also open to adults. It will be a place where children from all local schools, all economic strata, kids with learning disabilities, kids labeled “gifted,” kids in the middle, can meet and develop creative talents. He sees the new Eckstein as a place where the young can develop a sense of “belonging” and adds that Princeton City and Wyoming City Schools are both on board.

Something he says stirs me up and we talk about what I see as the curse of standardized tests, which I believe have done serious harm in education in recent years. Mr. Parrish and I are in accord. Focusing on testing means “kids are losing interest,” he warns. “At Eckstein creativity will be welcomed.”

“We’re not going to change that monster,” he adds, referring to all the mandated tests, “but we will provide an option.”

Now it’s my turn to smile.

Planning is now in the final stages. The Art Academy has agreed to provide 70% of staffing needs to run a wide variety of arts-based programs. One, Smart Art, will bring in artists to teach math and science—the planets, for example—from an art perspective. There will be room for adult artists to set up studios. The basketball court will be renovated. Art camps will run through the summer and during winter and spring breaks. So there will “never be a break from learning.” There will be classes in painting, drawing, sculpting, and computer graphics and writers’ camps, too, with students developing and then performing in their own plays.

How will Mr. Parrish and other adults know when their plans are working?

“We’ll tell you when it isn’t good,” he says the children he has talked with have promised him.

Naturally, Mr. Parrish is excited about prospects for the old school and listening to his stories, I get excited, too. I know you can’t “measure” the value of one artist. One singer. One musician. I know we can never predict what today’s young persons will choose to do with their lives.

So we don’t want to narrow our scope, which is exactly what a focus on standardized testing has done.

I explain to Mr. Parrish that I have asked every educator I have met in the last seven years what they think of standardized tests. After all, layers of A, B, C and D tests are the antithesis of what he hopes to do. At a birthday party this spring I met a kindergarten teacher who told me testing had been “terrible for children.” Her husband, a high school band director, said the testing focus had “completely stunted music education.” When I spoke recently with Jane Barre, my old principal at Loveland Middle School, she referred to the growing fetish for high stakes tests as a form of “lunacy.” I’ve written elsewhere about the damage done in subjects like American history. So I will spare you. But the negative effects seem to clearly outweigh the minimal gains that have been made. In 2013, for example, 44% of principals admitted cutting time for physical education focus could be placed on prepping for tests.

Who needs music anyway! Or physical education! Just let kids take more and more fill-in-the bubble tests!

(Despite the focus on testing over the last decade standardized test scores have barely risen at all.)

In the end, I doubt we’ll ever be able to “measure” what Mr. Parrish intends to do. Bill dreams of producing kids who write the next Broadway play, who go on to play cello for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. He wants to insure that the next generation of boys and girls who draw in the margins of their compositions have a chance to go on to a fulfilling life as cartoonists, sculptors and painters. He wants to make sure that we challenge young people to develop all their talents—to go beyond what they might initially feel they can do.

 “When you give kids a chance to express themselves,” he says finally, “they’re off the charts.”

The Eckstein Cultural Arts Center is coming soon.

The bones of the old building are still good.

Tower over front door.

Many architecural details are impressive.

Clearly, floors are worth saving.

The drainage system may need work.

Painters needed.

Window sill needing a little work.

There's work to be done.

The cupola over the main entrance will look great when refurbished.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

E. T. and the Teacher Phone Home

As many of my former students will fondly remember, I was always kind enough to call home if they fell behind in my history class.

(You don’t have to thank me! I did it for your own good!)

It didn’t always help. Still, it almost never hurt.

Eventually, a friend convinced me to start making positive phone calls home too. This turned out to be a pleasure, as much fun for me as it was for parents who received the calls lauding sons or daughters.

One evening, however, I placed a memorable call to A----’s parents. In this case, mom and dad had been born in India. I simply wanted to tell them their daughter was one of the best students I had ever had. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I know I raved. I told Mrs. J. that A---- was one of the hardest workers I had ever had in my twenty years [at that time] in teaching.

“I’m sure you must be very proud,” I added.

Mom admitted she was.  

I laughed and said A---- wasn’t perfect, just your typical teen. “I had to get on her a little yesterday,” I laughed once more. “I think she likes one of the boys who sits beside her in class.”

“Wonderful girl,” I concluded, “I just want to tell you I love having your daughter in class.”

The next day, at the start of history, A---- exclaimed, “Mr. Viall, you got me grounded last night!”

“WHAT!” I said in disbelief. “I told your mom you were one of the best students I ever had!”

“I know,” she smiled resignedly. “She said it was because I was flirting with a boy.”

Coming soon, whether the world is ready or not.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Gay Marriage Decision

As a former teacher (and now openly-liberal gentleman), I would like to comment on the U. S. Supreme Court decision today.

First, the Declaration of Independence is clear: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

It has taken much time to bring principle and practice into line—to end slavery in 1865, to determine that “men” includes both sexes and grant females the vote in 1920, and now to allow gays and lesbians to marry.

I think it was Justice Hugo Black who once explained his position in regard to the Bill of Rights this way: “Your rights end where the other person’s nose begins.” So: if gays and lesbians marry, my marriage is not harmed.

My nose is in no way bloodied.

As for Justice Thomas, one of the four members of the Supreme Court in the minority, I wonder that he did not recall a time in 1967, when his very own marriage (to a white woman) would have been illegal and criminal in many states.

(Anti-miscegenation laws were overturned that year, in Loving v. Virginia.)

Who, with even a rudimentary understanding of the U. S. Constitution, would uphold such laws today?

Nor is the decision today to be construed as an attack on freedom of religion, I don’t think. All good people of faith may still attend the churches of their choice. They may take communion as they wish. They may study the Bible, Koran or Torah as they please.

So should it be.

If some preacher wants to warn his congregation that the Sodomites are now irrevocably bound for Hell, that’s freedom of religion, too. If some ministers, priests or rabbis don’t want to marry gay couples, that is still a protected decision—and if it were ever to be taken as far as the U. S. Supreme Court, I would bet that the right to refuse would be protected by a 9-0 vote.

There are, however, limits to all rights, including freedom of religion. An old-fashioned Christian, Muslim or Jew, for example, could not say, “We claim the right the right to stone adulterers who belong to our church, temple or mosque.”

Freedom of religion and personal liberty do not always perfectly correspond.

That’s my thinking, anyway. And to all, I say, have a nice day.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Essense of Corporate Education: Greed and more Greed

Some of America’s greatest “school reformers” today (and by that I mean arrogant *&%$# like Bill Gates) insist that if we turn over the schools to corporations everything will turn out just great.

Color me skeptical, I guess.

As I see it, “corporate” is to “education” as “cigarette manufacturer” is to “public health and well-being.”

Think that sounds harsh? Do a bit of digging and see what evidence you find. The latest comes from the June 15 edition of the Columbus Dispatch. Administrators at General Chappie James Leadership Academy, a pile-up-the-bucks charter school in Dayton, Ohio, are under investigation for inflating student attendance numbers to suck up taxpayers’ dollars.

State Auditor Dave Yost decided last spring that it might be wiseto check attendance numbers for charter schools and see what he could find.

Chappie James was reporting an enrollment of 459 students. So investigators started checking the details. One mother said her child couldn’t have been in attendance because said child had been incarcerated for the last two years. 

Okay: only 458 students to go. 

Another family said, no, our girl hasn’t been attending Chappie James, either. We’ve been living in Georgia for several years.

(Feel free to start singing: “Four hundred, fifty-seven students enrolled in a charter, four hundred fifty-seven enrolled….”)

Yost kept prying up rocks and looking underneath—and it turned out half of purported students had no enrollment documentation at all. Daily attendance at General Chappie James Leadership Academy averaged…um….well …roughly 30.

(Okay, that song went unexpectedly fast: “Thirty students actually, physically enrolled in a charter, thirty students enrolled….”)

In any case, the state auditor’s office did a little adding and subtracting and determined that Kecia Williams, former director of the school, probably owed the State of Ohio a cool $1.2 million.

In the wake of the auditor’s investigation the Department of Education moved to ban “Kids Count of Dayton,” the most ironically named corporate entity one could imagine—which sponsored the offending school—from opening up new facilities anywhere in Ohio.

It would be bad enough if this was an aberration. Sadly, it was not. Typically, charter schools receive $6,000 per pupil from the State of Ohio annually.

So, the more students you say you enroll, the more money you end up stuffing in your ample corporate pockets.

The Dispatch explains:

Last fall, an investigation by Yost’s office found significantly lower attendance in half [emphasis added] of the 30 schools where auditors conducted unannounced head counts than enrollment data the schools had reported to the state…Yost also has complained about a number of charter schools with such poorly-kept records that they cannot be audited.

In other words, with stunning regularity, corporate education boiled down to one simple word. And that word was: Greed.

Why is anyone really surprised?

Many of us have written, for example, about the giant cesspool that is the for-profit college industry. It’s a great gig, after all, when five top executives of Corinthian College can pull down $22 million in salary over a two-year stretch—at the same time saddling students with high-interest loans—providing low-quality course offerings—and finally going bankrupt this spring.

HoHowHow about the five top executives at K-12, Inc., a for-profit chain of elementary and secondary online schools? They divvied up a cool $35.4 million in salaries and bonuses in 2013 and 2014.

For fun, put that in kid-centric terms. 

Those five individuals took home enough cash to hire 354 teachers (at $50,000 each), for two years to actually work with kids in grades K-12.

Greed is good, isn’t that right?

We know that Pearson spent $8 million between 2009 and 2014 to lobby politicians, mainly to ensure that the company might keep selling billions of dollars’ worth of standardized tests every year.

We know, here in Ohio, that David Brennan, operator of White Hat Schools, donated $3.8 million dollars to politicians over the course of eight years—know, in turn, that Brennan rakes in tens of millions of dollars in state aid yearly for his for-profit K-12 chain.

We don’t know how much money sticks to Brennan’s hands, however, because White Hat Schools are a privately held corporation and salaries need not be disclosed.

We do know that many White Hat Schools have attendance rates less than half reported enrollment.

Don’t believe greed serves as foundation in the corporate education world? Google “charter school operator indicted” for fun.

You get Steven Ingersoll, an optometrist, who ran a chain of Michigan charter schools. His federal indictment says he “diverted $934,000…through several channels into his personal bank account.”

You get the Los Angeles charter operator indicted on more than two dozen felony charges. On expense accounts, he managed to bill his school for the $995 cost of a seminar on “how to limit your personal tax bill,” and another $12.99 for a Speedo swimsuit. Not to mention the fact he and his wife took out a ten-year lease on a building to house the school ($18,000 monthly) and then turned around and sublet the property to the charter for…$44,000 a month.

So much cash to grab! 

So little time!

You had the Chicago charter outfit charged with securities fraud.

You had the guilty plea involving a Cleveland, Ohio charter operation, involving $1.8 million in fraud, including $331,000 paid by the school for services rendered to a Dayton, Ohio bar owner.

And then you have my favorite story for now, which carries the headline: F.B.I Tracks Charter Schools.

Go ahead, Google away yourself. You’ll find endless examples to tickle your fancy. But let’s end with perhaps the biggest scam of all. Let’s hear it for the University of Phoenix, a money-making juggernaut, a company so successful at piling up $$$$ it was able to pay the Arizona Cardinals of the NFL $154.5 million for naming rights to their stadium! Good advertising? Sure! Too bad the school had to pay a fine of $67.5 million, plus $11 million in legal fees, for defrauding students! 

Too bad a U. S. Senate investigation showed the school spent a mere $892 per pupil each year to actually educate students.

Hey, not to worry! Company founder John G. Sperling raked in $263.5 million in a little less than a decade in salary, bonuses and stock sales. And his son, Peter, did better still: $574.3 million.


We already know how corporate education is meant to work. We know, in the end, it boils down to greed.


If you liked this post, you might like my book about teaching, Two Legs Suffice, now available on Amazon.

Or contact me at vilejjv@yahoo.com and I can probably send you a copy direct for a little bit cheaper. My book is meant to be a defense of all good teachers and a clear explanation of what good teachers can do, and what they cannot do.

Two Legs Suffice is also about what students, parents and others involved in education must do if we want to truly enhance learning.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Corporate Education: What Did You Expect?

In a dark alley, somewhere, a recruiter from a for-profit college bends over the prostrate form of a homeless man. “Hey, want to earn a college diploma quick?” he says, nudging the sleepy form with his shoe.

“It won’t cost much. And you’ll end up with a high-paying job!”

If that sounds absurd, you underestimate the level to which for-profit colleges have sunk in recent years.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. There was a time when leading voices in school reform assured us bringing “business methods” to education could only lead to good.

How, in theory, would learning be enhanced once corporations took control? Corporations would bring “business efficiency” to operations. They would break teachers’ unions, which reformers insisted blocked their “great plans” to fix the schools. (School reformers never admit that the problem might not be unions. It might be their stupid plans.) Corporate schools would “chart data,” and use this “invaluable” info to prove what works in schools and what doesn’t, and what doesn’t would be ruthlessly stamped out. After all, businesses cared only to produce a “better product.” The chance to profit by supplying the demands for knowledge of happy consumers would drive “innovation” in education.

It was going to be….so….great! We simply had to place the fate of our imaginative kindergartners, excited elementary kids, questing teens, and dreaming college students in kindly money-making hands.

Only, it turned out that in the world of corporate education one word stood in the way of success for the children.

And that word was “Mammon.”

If you don’t realize what happened once corporations got their profit-making foot in the classroom door, the recent implosion of Corinthian Colleges provides a clear view of a grim reality.

Founded in 1995, Corinthian enjoyed phenomenal growth for the next fifteen years, as the for-profit model came into vogue. (I mean: what could go wrong with hedge fund managers starting up schools—and five top executives of K-12, Inc. dividing up $34 million in pay and bonuses in just the last two years!) Between 2001 and 2010, enrollment at schools like Corinthian, Kaplan, and the University of Phoenix ballooned. There were 550,000 students enrolled in 2001. By the end of the decade there were 1.8 million. Best of all, for those who ran for-profits, revenue multiplied like five loaves and two fishes. 

Only Jesus wasn’t around to make them share the food.

The schools were soon raking in $32 billion annually, most of that pile of cash coming from the 86% of undergraduates who had to borrow to pay tuition, often signing up for usurious high-interest loans.

Corinthian alone could boast $1.76 billion in revenue in 2010; $1.46 billion of that total paid for by federal loans.

Who gained in the process?

Stock prices for Corinthian (COCO) rose steadily between 1999 and 2004, hitting a high of $61.04 a share in May 2004.The stock then split; but a year later began to slide. A number of court judgements soon tarnished the Corinthian brand, with students claiming they were victims of fraud.

Still, business, as they say, was good. As late as 2010, Corinthian could boast a profit of $241 million.

That year, the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee opened an investigation into company practices, also looking at fourteen other leading for-profit institutions. The committee found that salaries for Corinthian executives were generous indeed:

 With the Senate turning over an assortment of large fiscal stones, and enrollment going into decline as a result, it soon seemed clear Corinthian’s recruiting practices (including targeting the homeless), false claims of job placement success, false assertions regarding graduates’ earnings, and other shady dealings, might not withstand scrutiny. In 2011, one financial advisor was already warning that Corinthian stock might fall to zero. It did indeed plunge: to 22¢ cents in July 2014, to a penny by spring 2015.

By then, top executives had cashed out and carted away wheelbarrows filled with money. In fact, even as the march to bankruptcy accelerated, five executives continued to pocket the dough. In July 2014, The New York Times could report that in 2011, 2012 and 2013, they divvied up $12.5 million in salary and bonuses between them.

In the end, it turned out Corinthian was led not by educators but greedy pirates whose commitment to learning involved dropping the “l,” and focusing on the remainder.

Well, then: What went wrong at schools like Corinthian? 

And why is anyone surprised?

First, the for-profits employed high-pressure tactics to recruit students, often sucking in single mothers anxious to provide better lives for their children, duping the down and out, pedaling a dream to the uneducated, of easy access to a college education and a high-paying job to come. Certainly, Corinthian didn’t mess around. The school employed 2,811 full-time recruiters, whose only job, it turned out, was to lure spiders into a green web.

On average, the Senate found, the fifteen publicly traded for-profits devoted almost one out of every four dollars in revenue to marketing and recruiting, what other kinds of businesses might call pimping. Corinthian methods were more or less typical, with “$3,969 per student [spent] on instruction in 2009, compared to $2,465 on marketing and $998 on profit.”

What made the situation worse was the fact many students were woefully prepared for college—the reality that for-profits weren’t all that worried about helping when they fell behind. So long as they paid their bills, usually taking out loans at obscene interest rates, the corporate folks were content.  

Of course, paying executives millions and hiring all those recruiters isn't cheap. So, Corinthian charged exorbitant fees. According to Senate investigators, Heald College, a Corinthian branch in Fresno, California, billed for $22,275 if a student enrolled in a program to earn a diploma as a “medical assistant.” Fresno City College, a public institution nearby, enrolled students in a similar program for $1,650.

Corinthian even shafted veterans. From 2009 to 2011, “Corinthian collected an average of $12,885 per veteran, compared to an average of $4,642 per veteran trained at a public college in the same period.”

Fortunately, state and federal investigators began pulling on loose threads and the whole tapestry began to unravel. The State of California reached a court settlement in 2007 with Corinthian, “after establishing evidence that the company deliberately and persistently misled prospective students about the schools’ placement rates.”

Every single program examined by officials inflated placement numbers, some by “as much as 37 percent. For most programs, only a third to a half of students [who graduated] obtained employment.”

(And only about a third graduated to begin.)

The situation at Everest College campuses in Texas might have been merely absurd, had the results not been tragic. The Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee report explained:
[Administrators]…falsified the employment records of 288 graduates over four years. Of those graduates, 176 allegedly worked for a business that had been created by a friend of the school’s career services director; this business did not have any actual employees. The other 119 graduates were said to be working for a company that only employed a total of seven Everest College students.

(In the same way, a report in the Prescott, Arizona Daily Courier, in April 2015, noted that Corinthian administrators reporting a student had found gainful employment in her chosen field of accounting, even though they knew she was still working at Taco Bell.)

With mounting evidence of fraud and abuse, the U. S. Department of Education began to crack down on for-profits. The percentage of funding that might come from federal sources was capped, for example. So the buccaneers of for-profit learning had to do some serious tap-dancing.

Corinthian now created a “Genesis loan program” and put $65 million worth of its own profit to work, charging new students “an average interest rate of 14.8 percent, with some…paying as much as 18 percent.”

A second loan plan called for an additional $450 million to be lent to students and carried interest rates between 11.9 and 17.9 percent.

All the while, students were dropping out at phenomenal rates, and defaulting on loans. But these loans, almost all backed by the federal government, could not be wiped out even if students filed for bankruptcy.

Knowing a government crackdown was growing ever more likely, Corinthian began hiring more people. But these new employees weren’t career counselors or professors. Their job was to contact students behind in their payments, but not yet in default. Thirty workers went door to door, contacting former students. One internal document, revealed during the Senate investigation, found that students in “late stages of delinquency” could be contacted up to 110 times per month.

One might to call it “for-profit harassment.”

Why were so many students defaulting? Part of the problem stemmed from the for-profit penchant for enrolling students unprepared to do college-level work. In 2014, an Everest College librarian abruptly resigned after she found herself trying to help a 37-year-old student, with big dreams of completing a program and going on to a career in law enforcement. The librarian, Laurie McConnell, could see no way he’d ever qualify for such a post.

He read at the third grade level.

A second problem, and a glaring one, was that so many courses Corinthian and others offered, in particular online classes, were of dubious quality to begin. According to a 2011 report released by the Government Accountability Office, standards at Corinthian and other for-profits were ridiculously weak. First, investigators posing as students found that twelve of fifteen commercial colleges, including the five biggest, accepted fake high school diplomas without bothering to check, including diplomas from high schools that had long since ceased to exist.  

The for-profits claimed their model allowed students to enroll in online classes and proceed at their own pace. GAO agents discovered that the commercial colleges were indeed highly accommodating when measuring pace and assessing work. Sometimes, the faux students purposely did the wrong assignments.

They passed with flying colors.

Let’s try turning in plagiarized material and see what happens, the GAO said. Hey, the agents got A’s. One investigator even included a link to the plagiarized article he used in his assignment.

Well, then, GAO investigators wondered, what would happen if we don’t turn in anything and don’t bother to log in and actually take the class? In a for-profit world the paying customer still received A’s. 

Maybe the for-profit educators were hoping to spur creativity! One “student” in a class called Learning Strategies and Techniques, required for an associate degree in business (too ironic to require comment), turned in pictures of political figures and celebrities in response to essay questions and ignored online chats that were part of the class. The creative scholar passed regardless.

At another college a student got an “A” on an assignment he never turned in (apparently he was taking a class called “Profit Magic 101”). 

In another egregious case a “professor” copied and pasted the same comments for multiple students submitting multiple assignments. And that feedback read:

Remember that you must response to entire of the main question as well as two responses to other people’s posts. As we learn from each other responses to the course material. Please let me know if there is any assistance I can provide to assist you in succeeding in the course next discussion.

Yeah, good stuff, professor. Good stuff!

It wasn’t just Corinthian, though, and the first for-profit chickens began coming home to roost. In 2005 six Oregon students sued for-profit Business Computer Training Institute (BCTI).

According to The Oregonian, “The lawsuits accused BCTI of fraud and unfair business practices, saying it lured students with inflated job-placement claims but failed to provide the education it promised.”

The case dragged on until 2009, with plaintiffs finally winning a $3.2 million judgment against the school.

But this wasn’t BCTI’s only trip to court. In 2007, after the school collapsed in the face of regulatory pressure, “insurers agreed to pay $13.25 million to settle claims of fraud by students in Washington State, where BCTI was based and operated five campuses. More than 1,300 former students received $8,000 [each] as part of that settlement…though that amount did not cover all outstanding loans.” 

Of course it didn’t. 

Still, what could defrauded students do? The bandits had absconded with the cash. So, people like Christy Jarvis, 28, were stuck with high-interest loans and worthless diplomas.

Or no diplomas at all. 

“I still owe more than $7,000 to [the] U.S. Department of Education,” Jarvis told a reporter at the time. “I’ve been paying for eight years.”

Across the nation, signs of trouble were multiplying. In 2008 a court settlement required the University of Phoenix, owned by the Apollo Group, to pay stockholders $280 million after misleading investors about its own high-pressure recruiting practices—paying counselors solely on the basis of students recruited, not students who succeeded in class.

Investigators charged that University of Phoenix had “created a boiler-room atmosphere, in which hitting an enrollment quota was [the] highest priority. Recruiters who failed to bring in enough students were put through disciplinary processes and sometimes terminated.” The company was forced to pay a $67.5 million judgment and $11 million in legal fees to settle a whistleblower suit, but profits still piled high.

This profitability probably had something to do with the fact the University of Phoenix devoted a mere $892 to instruction per pupil, per year—vs. $3,300 to $11,100 at comparable public institutions.

It might be true that the quality of education provided was suspect, but salaries of Apollo Group executives met the very highest standards of avarice. Vice Chairman Peter Sperling collected $574.3 million in salary, bonuses, and stock during a seven-year period. John G. Sperling, the company founder, received $263.5 million during that same time.

Leaders of other profits weren’t exactly hurting. Robert B. Knutson, for example, the head of Education Management Corporation (EDMC), banked a cool $132.4 million.

Defenders of this education model might have insisted that such compensation was good, because (for a time) stockholders did well. Yet, in their wake the for-profits stranded hundreds of thousands of students, left them without degrees, or holding worthless diplomas, stuck with huge loans.

Jolene Daly, who lives in Turlock, California, borrowed $54,000 to pay for her bachelor’s degree from the University of Phoenix. She now works as a barista at a Starbucks Corp. coffee shop, making $8.94 an hour. Apollo should spend less on its executives and more on its instructors, who were poorly qualified and unprepared for courses, she said.
“It’s nice to know that that’s what I was paying for, because it certainly wasn’t the courses,” Daly said in a telephone interview. “It’s kind of infuriating.”

There were thousands of stories like these—each a tragedy in itself for some young man or woman. One victim was Brittany Prock, a Texas girl, who long dreamed of becoming a detective and saw the chance when she signed up for online classes at Everest College. False dreams, indeed! 

When Prock graduated in 2010 she had one job offer, from a janitorial service, no support whatsoever from the school in her job hunt, and $83,542 in federal loans.

Another victim was Hannah Benbow, a young woman saddled with $120,000 in high-interest tuition loans for classes at the Art Institute of Washington, in Arlington, Virginia, a branch of EDMC.

(EDMC is today the target of a whistleblower lawsuit filed by former school officers, who claim the company schemed to use “deceptive recruiting practices to target students who qualified for aid under the GI Bill.”)

At times it was like playing Whack-a-Mole with corrupt “educators.” Eventually, the U. S. Department of Education slapped Everest with $30 million in fines. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau opened an investigation into predatory loan practices at several for-profit institutions. Attorney generals from thirty-two states began considering legal actions of various types. But Daly’s and Prock’s and Benbow’s hopes of achieving the American Dream had been dashed.

And yet, at the opposite end of the pipeline the money still flowed. In 2010, Jonathan Grayer, CEO of Kaplan, another major player in the field, resigned after seventeen years at the helm. “It has been a wonderful journey with great people,” he assured all who would listen. A wonderful journey, for sure! 

Grayer was departing with a compensation package worth $76 million.  

Sadly, the journey for tens of thousands of students ended, not with a bang of bucks, but a whimper. Investigators found that 68% of students enrolled in Kaplan’s bachelor’s programs (combing two figures below) withdrew without a degree within two years of enrollment.

 The story was much like the one at Corinthian—except that Kaplan, today, remains solvent.  Kaplan-affiliated schools, too, charged students far more than they would have paid at non-profit institutions.

Yet, when Grayer stepped down, and Andrew S. Rosen took his place, Grayer could still insist: “I have no doubt he will continue to focus Kaplan’s culture on what matters most—successful futures for our students.”

But Kaplan didn’t focus on students. None of the for-profits did. They were corporations first, corporations second, corporations last.

Profit was their game.

Meanwhile, Bill Gates, who, in his own mind, believes he knows just what must be done to fix American education—starting with kindergarten and working his way up to the last level of PhD programs—offered a glowing portrait of the work Kaplan College was doing under Mr. Rosen’s charge.

And so it went. So it continues to this day. Only the worst abuses have been curbed under pressure from state and federal regulators and in the face of a well-earned onslaught of court filings.

The sorry saga has sad chapters yet to come, greed being timeless. In 2012, for example, Florida sued Keiser University (20,000 students across five campuses), forcing the school to offer free retraining to students who earned degrees from the school but found no useful employment opportunities.

Once the crackdown began, Keiser decided to flee the for-profit world, and—presto!—transform itself into a non-profit institution. So Keiser was sold to Everglades College, a “now you see it, now you don’t” kind of transaction. What made this cool was that the Keiser family, which founded the university, founded Everglades, too. And, what do you know: Dr. Arthur Keiser, as president of a brand new institution, would earn a whopping $856,000 annually, more than the president of Harvard ever saw in one year.

This new configuration offered fresh money-making possibilities. (Also: a chance to skirt new federal and state regulations!) Carl B. Barney trod the same path, selling several for-profits, including College California, to a Denver non-profit, Center for Excellence in Higher Education.

Cool name!

According to court documents, however, the Center had a staff of one: Chairman Carl B. Barney. Barney, too, worked out a sweet deal: loaning out $431 million, collecting $5.1 million in rent from the new school in 2013 alone.

After the State of Colorado sued, Barney responded like Dr. Seuss: “You cannot profit from a nonprofit,” he claimed.

The investigations and court battles continued, but students still ended up holding empty academic bags. In 2013 Career Education Corporation paid a $10 million fine to the State of New York related to false claims, including counting graduates as employed “if they were involved for a day at a community health fair.” 

The following year, ITT Educational Services, with 55,000 students online and on campuses in dozens of states missed a deadline to file documents with the U.S. Department of Education. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau sued ITT, alleging the school had pressured students into taking out high-interest, high-risk loans. 

In November 2014, the Government Accountability Office labeled Corinthian “one of fifteen for-profit colleges where recruiters encouraged students to commit fraud on financial aid applications.”

And in 2014, Mr. Rosen, who ran Kaplan, one of those schools, earned $4.9 million for his services.

As recently as April, last, the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit Court issued a ruling allowing a False Claims Act lawsuit lodged against Heritage College, which operates campuses across the country, to go forward. According to whistleblowers, the school had defrauded the U. S. government of $32.8 million between 2009 and 2012.

Currently, forty million young Americans carry student loans totaling $1.2 trillion, that total having doubled in the last ten years. Many, who attended schools like the University of Phoenix and Heritage have nothing to show for their investments but heartache; and you could argue that they’d have been better off it muggers had simply assaulted them in dark alleys and run off with their wallets.

Corporate education: What did you expect?

Students: The New Cash Crop.


If you liked this post, you might like my book about teaching, Two Legs Suffice, now available on Amazon.

Or contact me at vilejjv@yahoo.com and I can probably send you a copy direct for a little bit cheaper. My book is meant to be a defense of all good teachers and a clear explanation of what good teachers can do, and what they cannot do.

Two Legs Suffice is also about what students, parents and others involved in education must do if we want to truly enhance learning.