Sunday, November 2, 2014

Corporate Public Schools! It's Going to be Great!

Last week I visited the first completely corporate public school system in the country. For years, corporate crusaders have been claiming that breaking the “public school monopoly” and bringing business efficiency to education will only improve results.

So it was that I found myself seated in the office of the superintendent of the Enron City Schools in Enron, Texas.

Glancing out a window, I couldn’t help but notice three oil wells pumping on the front lawn of the administration building.

The superintendent, Henry Clay Frick, explained. “Here in Enron, we believe business principles applied to education will always bring good. So we have a lucrative deal with British Petroleum to pump oil from under the schools.

“Yeah, what could go wrong with that,” I replied, faking a smile.

Frick wondered if I might like a tour and led the way out to the parking lot and we jumped in his Lamborghini. I asked how an administrator could afford such a beautiful automobile. He admitted corporate education was different. First, there were no pesky unions demanding raises or fringe benefits for teachers. “In Enron, we pay for talent,” he explained. “Our top executives earn more because, frankly, they work harder.”

When I asked how much more, Frick said his district copied the K-12 Inc. model, a successful for-profit charter school chain. “Our eight top executives earn a combined $21.37 million,”

I do some quick calculating. If the average Texas teacher earns $50,179, then administrators made as much as 426 classroom teachers.

“It’s not easy running an efficient corporate school system,” Frick claimed as we pulled up in front of the high school. “We need money to lobby politicians, so sometimes we have to cut costs in other ways. Luckily, almost all our money comes from state coffers, so when we pay lobbyists, taxpayers foot the bill.”

“How much do you budget for lobbying?”

“We’re not quite where we need to be,” Frick replied. “We’re competing with for-profit charter operators like David Brennan, who runs White Hat Schools in Ohio, and who hopes to expand into every state. In the last eight years he’s donated $3.8 million to fifty-one politicians.”

Moments later, we enter the building. Admittedly, Enron High is neat and clean. The janitor sweeping the hall is obviously a “special needs” individual.

“We in Enron are committed to helping those who require a hand up, not a handout,” Frick says, following my gaze. “All our janitors are severely handicapped—supplied to us by Henry’s Turkey Service.”

“Aren’t they the guys that shipped disabled workers to Iowa for thirty years to work in meat packing plants?”

“Exactly,” Frick agreed. “And we use their system. We house our janitors in a bunkhouse behind the school. We charge rent, charge for meals….”

“How much do they earn when you subtract for food and lodging?”

“Oh, I would estimate about the same as the Iowa workers,” Frick says. “Around forty cents an hour.”

We head down the hall. Stopping a moment, I listen as an American history class goes over material that is expected to be on the next round of standardized tests. There are probably a hundred students crammed into the room. Frick is happy to explain. “Pack ‘em in, we say here in Enron. It’s the same as the airlines. “We even charge a $50 fee if students want to bring book bags to class.”

I offer a wan smile.

I notice a plaque over the door of the history room. It turns out the school copies the business model of the San Francisco 49ers. That means selling naming rights to everything you might imagine. This class meets in the Axe Body Wash Room. There’s also the Reynolds Tobacco Media Center and the Flo-Max Faculty Men’s Restroom. (Frick says later the school is thinking about requiring students to wear uniforms, and he is working hard on an exclusive contract with the Abercrombie and Fitch people.)

Frick soon asks if I would like to tour any of his other schools, and fifteen minutes later we pull up in front of Lehman Brothers Elementary School, I notice a maintenance worker resting a moment beside a lawn tractor. I stop to ask what he most enjoys about working for Enron Schools. He stares at me blankly.

“Oh, that’s Juan,” Frick nudges me. “We need to make a profit, you know. Don’t say I told you, but we hire all kinds of undocumented workers. Man, if you pay them under the table, those guys work cheap!”

“We’re just like the Gulen chain of charter schools,” Frick adds with a laugh. This time, I don’t even try to fake a smile.

As you tour the Enron Schools, you have to be impressed. A stop in the cafeteria at lunch reveals another truth. Junk food = big money. Students may no longer bring food from home. It’s like going to a movie theater. You can order a large Coke for $4.50. (It looks like they’re handing you a bucket.) Or maybe you’d like the special: hamburgers—only $3.50. Frick winks as we go through the line and advises me to skip the burgers.

(He admits later that the meat came from a company that was perhaps bending a few regulations and selling meat from diseased cows.)

Our last stop for the day takes us to Michael Milken Middle School. Frick is proud of the new system and outlines a few of the ways a profit can be squeezed when it comes to students. Each school has an office set aside for a representative of Pearson, the successful maker of standardized tests. Huge piles of cash are there to be grabbed—so one business scratches the back of another—and Pearson sends state education commissioners and Enron leaders to cool education conferences in places like Rio de Janeiro. And what do you know! Pearson now holds the contract to supply more and more tests to Texas schools.

“There’s some huge money right there,” Frick grins. “The Pearson contract is worth $468 million per year.”

Time is growing short, so we hurry along. I see barrels of toxic chemicals stacked in a corner of the art room. Safety costs money. So Enron cuts corners when it must. To cover their tracks they copy the Massey Energy model, meaning there are two sets of safety books, one for company use and the other to dupe inspectors. True: occasionally a few people get blown to bits, but what’s a corporate school supposed to do? Not make gigantic profits?

“We’ve pretty much monetized everything,” Frick says as we finally head back to his office. “If parents can’t pay fees or afford school supplies, we encourage them to take out payday loans. I’m proud to say we’ve copied First Premier Bank of South Dakota when it comes to lunch charges. We allow families to open accounts but cap charge limits at $300. They pay $95 to create the account and a $75 annual service fee.”

“’d be looking at an APR of…67%?”

“We’ve also adopted the discipline system of the Noble Charter Schools up in Chicago,” Frick says, changing the subject. “We charge students who get into trouble for ‘discipline packets.’ What a corporate business model! Noble pulled down $188,000 in discipline fines and fees in just one school year.

“You probably noticed how few discipline problems we have, too,” Frick continued. “We’ve been following the Jansen Pharmaceutical Model. If our nurse thinks a child has behavioral issues she makes sure that child is given a prescription for anti-psychotic drugs. 

“Man, sales are up!”

“Isn’t there evidence some of these drugs have dangerous side effects and that children may die as a result?”

I think Frick suddenly realizes I may be some sort of commie agitator. “Jansen keeps only the finest doctors (and our school nurse) on its payroll and those doctors issue reports to show that these drugs are completely safe,” he says defensively. “And, naturally, our well-compensated school nurse agrees. Just because some Arkansas court fined Jansen $1.2 billion dollars for lying….”

Frick’s voice trails off. I glance at my watch and see it’s really time to go. I thank him for his time and ask one final question.

“Is there any way you think you can still improve profit margins in the Enron City Schools?”

He puzzles over the matter a moment. “If only we could copy the cost-cutting methods of Apple Inc., which operates a number of factories in China.”

“You mean,” I grimace, “violating overtime rules, child labor, workers penned in behind barbed wire….”

“Child labor...if only,” Frick says wistfully. This time he doesn’t smile. “You want cheaper iPads—or cheaper education—you have to make tough decisions.” He gets a faraway look and I hear him mutter, “There must be a way to outsource jobs in American education….”

I bid a goodbye and soon find myself driving north on Interstate-35, back toward Cincinnati, Ohio. “I have seen the future of corporate education,” I tell myself, paraphrasing Lincoln Steffens. “And it works.”

Really, this is going to be great.

Logo for the Enron Public Schools: Endless possibilities...for profiting!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Time Runs A Incredibly Stupid Story

Gag! Another article blames teachers for all problems in the schools.

If you teach for a living you probably know Time magazine ran a stupid story this week. “Rotten Apples” it’s called. It’s the tragic tale of how tenure is ruining kids lives and how bad teachers plague the land.

I won’t be the only educator to notice the terrible timing, with this issue landing in mailboxes a day after the awful school shooting in Marysville, Washington. And you have to wonder. Do the people cited in this story, who claim they want to fix the problems in our nation’s schools, really believe tenure is the big issue? They say tenure means “employment for life.” Maybe Time could highlight some of the tenured teachers who have died in recent years trying to shield children from catastrophic harm.

I won’t be the first to note that not a single teacher is asked to comment in the story, either. 

Who does get their say? Who are the real “heroes” fighting for the kids? “Silicon business types and billionaires,” people like David Welch and Bill Gates. Gates is working on a plan to change the way history is taught in our schools, because he’s sure there’s a better way, and we have to listen to him because...he’s Bill Gates! Welch is a “Silicon Valley muckety-muck who lives in one of the fanciest ZIP codes in America,” according to TimeNaturally, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is mentioned. He agrees. Tenure is a curse. And Arne knows everything about education, because he went to Harvard and never got around to teaching. Remember? He’s the guy who “fixed” the Chicago Public Schools. Of course, the city still has gang problems and hundreds of school-age children have been shot there in recent years. 

Ignoring such unimportant issues, Time focuses on tenure. The judge’s ruling (which would strike down California tenure law if upheld), rested on complex “value added measurements” (VAM) which showed a bad teacher could “set a student’s educational progress back by 9.54 months.” A second study, again based on complex VAM, and supposedly controlling “for factors like race and poverty rates” found that replacing bad teachers “could increase students’ lifetime earnings by $250,000 per classroom.”

Strangely enough, reporters and editors failed to notice that they blew up the foundation of their story before the last paragraph could sputter to a sorry end. In April the American Statistical Association questioned whether such methodology “adequately measures a teacher’s total value to a student’s education.” The following month the American Educational Research Association took an even stronger stand, saying there was “a ‘surprisingly weak’ correlation between teachers’ VAM scores and their actual skills.”

Leaving complexities aside, let’s imagine we wanted to increase the lifetime earnings of students. Why not start by raising the minimum wage? Next, convince Silicon Valley tech firms, like Apple, run by billionaires like Welch, and the the folks who run Walmart to stop outsourcing millions of jobs to China. Yep. The Waltons appear in the Time story. They’ve tossed around piles of money in an effort to support charter schools. You know, because they care about children. They care so much they pay those children’s parents, who work as cashiers in their stores, a princely sum. Oh yes: $8.48 per hour. 

Michelle Rhee also rears her sour puss. If you don’t know Rhee, teachers, you should. She’s the most obnoxious of all obnoxious school reformers. (As reformers go, Rhee is the rare exception in that she actually taught for three years.) Time once did an idiotic story on her, too. Rhee promised, as chancellor of the Washington, D. C. schools, to sweep out all the bad teachers and cure the problems in education—sweep!—just like that!

Like so many school fixers, Rhee told every reporter who would listen (and write up a glowing story about Michelle Rhee) that using test scores to rate teachers was the key. During her time at the D. C. helm she fired hundreds of veteran educators when scores didn’t measure up. Then she gave bonuses to teachers and principals in cases were scores surged. Unfortunately, as USA Today later discovered, most D. C. educators who posted “improved” results did it mainly by plying erasers to alter student answer sheets.

Time did get at least one story line right when noting that an “outright mutiny” might be brewing among teachers. But no one at the magazine had the good sense to wonder why. Teachers are itching for a fight, I suspect, not because they care only about protecting their jobs. Not at all. They want to do their jobs right. They don’t want to fill out more forms. They don’t want to spend more valuable instruction time charting data. They don’t want to give more and more standardized tests. They want to get back to helping kids. They don’t fear being “exposed” as a result of VAM. They don’t believe VAM is valid to begin.

Let’s imagine that tenure could be eliminated next week. The 10-15% of children who are chronically absent wouldn’t suddenly rise from their beds and start coming to class in regular fashion. The four-year-old girl in Delaware who recently brought hundreds of packets of heroin to nursery school would still be headed for kindergarten next year. And that poor child’s real problem would still be her screwed up mom. If we ended tenure immediately we’d still be the advanced nation with the most school shootings by far, the lowest percentage of children enrolled in early education, the highest percentage (save for Romania) of boys and girls living in poverty, and the highest incidence of teen pregnancy too.

If tenure ended next week, people like Welch and Gates still wouldn’t know what my wife knew, because she taught—that if a third grade student has a prostitute and a drunk for a mother, the kid wont really care if his teacher has tenure. 

They wouldn’t know what I knew, because I taught—that a seventh grade girl might struggle in history class, not because Im tenured but because when she goes home her father is sexually abusing her every night.

Even Time admits that tenure laws developed a century ago, when a teacher “could be fired for holding unorthodox views or attending the wrong church, or for no reason at all if the local party boss wanted to pass on the job to someone else.” Those same dangers remain today. We still have politicians who are scumbags, who might love to get rid of a few good non-tenured teachers just to open up slots for their friends. We still know there are billionaires out there who want to push their particular religious or political agendas in the schools, and we know they might be inclined to throw their money around and make it clear to administrators and school board members they wanted an individual teacher who opposed their positions gone. Tenure still protects good teachers from all kinds of harm.

In fact, getting rid of tenure is just the latest panacea in a long, illustrious parade of panaceas offered up by those who insist they know how to fix the schools, who say they care about saving every child, and who insist they know how to do it, even though theyve never done it at all. They have the great plans

As for you teachers, tenure or not, the leave it to you  to do all the real, hard work of saving every child.

It might be nice if all these idiots stopped offering so much advice, rolled up their sleeves, and tried to help. Bill Gates, David Welch, Arne Duncan, and Haley Sweetland Edwards, who wrote this Time cover story, we humbly invite you, no we dare you, to step into the failing school of your choice and see what its really like to teach.

Something tells me none of you could last.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Hiking in Glacier National Park

Part of the trail to Grinnell Glacier, Glacier National Park.

The question for today: Can you fire students with an interest in the world around them? And if you do, will that show up on a standardized test?

When I was teaching American history, I used to use a number of slides taken on vacation to illustrate important points. One that never failed:

Sequioa National Park in California.

I always put this slide up first for the day. Then I asked students: “How many of you think that’s a big tree?” 

Most agreed it was.

I explained: “That’s just a sequoia tree limb.” I said a ranger told my first wife and me that the limb was 150 feet long when it snapped and fell to the ground, shattering into several giant sections.

This simple trick captured student attention and got us started on an excellent lesson about John Muir and early efforts to protect the environment.

I used a variety of slides over the years: scenes from Custer's Last Stand, pictures of lousy Indian reservation land and buffalo in Yellowstone. 

Pictures from Bodie, California, a ghost town high up in the Sierras, helped students do a writing assignment centered on the gold rush era.

Bodie once had a population of almost 10,000. By 1932, the town had been abandoned.

Often, I liked to tell seventh and eighth graders that if they never listened to another word I said (not that what I said was boring!), they should drive across the United States once in their lives, to see what a beautiful country we have. 

I remember when Laura Barlett stopped to see me one day after school. She was probably twenty at the time; but I had already left for home. So Laura left a note, saying she had followed my advice and visited Yellowstone and other great parks out West. When I read that note, I knew I had done my job as a teacher.

Suppose I was teaching today. Lets say: I was teaching health. I’d build a lesson around a trip I took to Glacier National Park. I’d focus on the idea that all of us can get in better shape and focus on the benefits of walking more, or in this case hiking. Maybe I’d throw in a few pictures from my two bicycle rides across the United States. I believe, after all, that you can plant important seeds in the minds of the young. I’d like to plant seeds that might lead kids to develop an interest in getting into shape and staying that way.

After all, I met a 78-year-old women on one of the harder trails in Glacier and she was going strong.

Of course, nothing like this is ever going to be on any standardized test. I’m retired now; but as a former teacher, that makes me profoundly sad. 

Dedicated teachers want to fire the young with passion for learning—and an abiding interest in the world around them.

I’d tell my students today, “If you don’t listen to anything else I say this year, go hiking in Glacier National Park someday.”

If one young person eventually did, I’d have earned my pay.

Buffalo road block in Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park.

Hiking the trail down from Piegan Pass, Glacier National Park.
My wife is 62; and I'm even older than that!


My two youngest daughters at the top of Piegan Pass.

Mountain goat near the trail to Hidden Lake.

That line you see is Going to the Sun Highway, a spectacular engineering feat.

Grinnell Glacier: by 2030 all glaciers may be gone.
That tells us something about climate change.

Hidden Valley Lake.

The Highline Trail is supposed to be the most spectacular in Glacier.
I didn't have time to do this one myself.

Overlook above Grinnell Lake.

Looking down from Piegan Pass.

Moose dead ahead on the trail.

Also: bighorn ram on the trail.
If I was still teaching I'd show students this picture of Monticello.
Jefferson's home.
If you want students to know what the people on wagon trains faced
this picture works. Not far from South Pass in Wyoming.
I'd try to convince students they could do more, physically than they think.
I used to try to convince them they could do more mentally, too.
Tioga Pass in California.
Lake at the top of Tioga Pass.
Beartooth Highway near Cooke City, Montana.
Hiking the Highline Trail in the clouds.
You can always sit around; or you can go and hike.
Highline Trail: I'd try to teach students to step out of their comfort zone.
You know: challenge themselves.

More photos from Glacier National Park follow:

My wife Anne took a spill on the Loop Trail.

Action shot of goat (second from right) defecating!

Stopping along the Going to the Sun Highway.

Trail to Grinnell Glacier.

Grinnell Lake.

View from the trail near Logan Pass Visitors' Center.

I may be on Medicare now; but I can still go hiking in Glacier.

Start of the Highline Trail.

Heading up to Piegan Pass.

My daughters, Emily and Sarah, at Piegan Pass.

Lake scene near Many Glaciers Lodge.

Nature sculpts the stone.
Son-in-law, Alex Donaldson, on the Loop Trail.

Anne at Grinnell Glacier.

Mountain meadow near Logan Pass.

Hikers on the trail coming back from Grinnell Glacier.

Hiking in the Two Medicine region, southern part of the park.

Swimming in Avalanche Lake: approximate water temperature: 45 degrees.

Stream along the Trail of Cedars path.
Above the clouds at Logan Pass.

Bear grass near the summit of the Loop Trail.

Flowers along the Loop Trail.

Overlook on the Going to the Sun Highway.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Is Getting Rid of Tenure the Answer? Or Should Teachers Stop Breathing?

I’m just a typical retired teacher. I probably shouldn’t let the flurry of attacks on public school teachers bother me.

But I do.

For that reason, I would like to pose a question that goes to the heart of school reform thinking: Why do so many experts sound so stupid when they talk about fixing our schools?

This question bothers me like a sharp stone in my shoe. I read about what’s “wrong” with American education and end up scratching my head.

Maybe I’m dumb! That’s a thread in attacks on public school teachers today. Supposedly, we’re not smart enough. Finland! Finland is the model we must follow. In Finland only smart people teach! In fact, according to education experts there’s nothing wrong with American education except all the bad teachers.

A typical editorial in the New York Times this week hammered on that point. According to Mike Johnston, who “spent two years with Teach for America,” bad teachers with tenure are the great stumbling block in the path of every child’s academic success.

After spending two whole years in a classroom, Johnston seems to think he learned everything there is to know about teaching. Then he spent six years working as a principal in a Denver public school. And what do you know! 

His school had amazing standardized test results.

(We will not mention here the numerous cheating scandals involving other “amazing” standardized test results. We will also not mention that all the amazing test results linked to No Child Left Behind have now been tossed out the classroom window onto the schoolhouse lawn. Nope. We will keep our teacher sarcasm in check.)

No Child Left Behind is dead. Long live Common Core, instead.

Frank Bruni, who signed the editorial, noted that Johnston’s mother was a public school teacher. Johnston isn’t a teacher hater. (So Bruni says.) Still, he “expresses the concern that we’re not getting the best teachers into classrooms or weeding out the worst performers.” That’s the first line that makes me choke on my morning toast.

You there! The physics teacher pointing out the solution to a complex problem on the white board. You! The one grading those eighth grade Language Arts essays! You! The one talking to the weeping third grader! YOU are not the best person for the job.

You are the PROBLEM. 

If we could get rid of you all children would excel. We can’t get rid of you though. You have tenure. You rat!

So what must be done? Johnston says we need to implement a tenure system that “means something,” a system based on test results. (Even bogus test results? Or results that no longer matter because NCLB is dead?) We can’t continue the system we have now that rewards teachers “just because you’re breathing.”

That’s the second line in the editorial that makes me choke on my toast. If I read this editorial right, asphyxiation is the cure for what ails U. S. education. We simply convince bad teachers to stop breathing.

Ironically, after trashing teachers in a general way, Bruni ends by exhorting readers to support good teachers everywhere. But this is one of many pieces of a similar kind that hint good teachers are few and far between. Hard to find. Kind of like Sasquatch. Or unicorns. “We need to pay good teachers much more,” Bruni adds. “We need to wrap the great ones in the highest esteem. But we also need to separate the great from the bad.”

Now a Colorado lawmaker, Johnston has the last word: “Our focus is not on teachers because they are the problem,” he says lamely, having already said the reverse. “Our focus is on teachers because they are the solution.”

That’s the line that finally makes me mumble a curse.

I loved teaching and had tenure most of my career. I knew what I did truly mattered. So I did the absolute best I could. But unlike the non-teaching experts—or the quick teaching quitters who go on to become “leaders” and politicians and critics—I learned that I wasn’t the solution. No teacher has ever been and no teacher ever will.

If every bad teacher in a classroom suddenly stopped breathing next week critical problems in all our schools would absolutely remain. (In Finland, to cite one example, 4% of children live in poverty. In the USA that figure is 23%.) Good teachers put dents in such problems. Good teachers do that every day. 

Nevertheless, our so-called leaders must face up to the truth. Teachers aren’t the solution and tenure isn’t the problem. H. L. Mencken put it plainly seventy-five years ago: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

The experts offer up simple solutions to complex problems, simple solutions that all to often prove disastrously wrong in the end. If we wish to improve outcomes in schools we have to rest school reform on a solid foundation of good sense. A society has a right to expect teachers to give their best. A society cannot, however, expect them to perform miracles with every child every day.

Teachers don’t need to be lectured, punished, or vilified by fools. They need aid in addressing terrible problems that seep into schools—problems rooted in neighborhoods and homes, problems not of their making, nor within their ordinary human capacities to resolve.