Tag Archives: education reform movement

Finally, More Criticism of the Khan Academy


My last criticism of Salman Khan’s Khan Academy was met with much criticism of its own. Many people are firmly convinced that Khan’s videos are the future of education. The comments section was just a small taste of how fervently people have embraced Salman Khan. Since then, cogent criticisms of the Khan Academy have been tough to come by.

That is why I appreciate the detailed essay posted on the Mathalicious website about the Khan Academy’s videos. Whenever someone writes one bad word about the genial Salman Khan, you can be sure a line of psychophants will line up to educate that person about how they are just too dumb to realize that Sal represents the future of schooling.

Read the post and then the comments and you will see this scenario play out like clockwork. This is just more evidence that we need more criticisms of the Khan Academy on the internet.

The Propaganda of Small Schools

Don't go beyond that blue wall. That's not your school.

I have never heard of the MDRC until few days ago. It is a think tank with the motto “Building Knowledge to Improve Social Policy.” However, it is tough to see what type of knowledge it is building by publishing a mindlessly laudatory study of New York City’s small high schools entitled “Sustained Positive Effects on Graduation Rates Produced by New York City’s Small Public High Schools of Choice”. The single most important sentence in the 12-page study can be found towards the bottom of page 11: “This policy brief and the study upon which it is based are funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.”

There you go. The fix was in from the start.

Closing New York City’s large comprehensive public high schools in order to replace them with several small schools has been a cornerstone of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s brand of education reform. It states in the introductory paragraph of the study: “Between fall 2002 and fall 2008, the school district closed 23 large failing high schools (with graduation rates below 45 percent), [and] opened 216 new small high schools (with different missions, structures, and student selection criteria)…” Rather than just stating facts, the authors use language (like “large failing high schools”) to soften up the reader to accept the study’s ultimate conclusion: “In summary, the present findings provide highly credible evidence that in a relatively short period of time, with sufficient organization and resources, an existing school district can implement a complex high school reform that markedly improves graduation rates for a large population of low-income, disadvantaged students of color.”

Of course, we did not need a 12-page study printed on glossy paper to tell us that graduation rates in New York City have increased under Bloomberg. What the study does do, amazingly, is attribute these rising rates to the great education provided by the small high schools: “In a large sample, like that used for the MDRC study, lottery winners and lottery losers are the same, on average, in all ways before they enter high school. Consequently, it is valid to attribute any differences in their future academic outcomes to their access to an SSC (“Small Schools of Choice”). Because students who lose an SSC lottery attend over 200 high schools that vary widely in their size, age, structure, academic programs, and effectiveness, the MDRC report judged SSCs against the overall effectiveness of a diverse group of other high schools. The results released in 2010 indicated that, on average, the 105 SSCs studied increased student progress toward graduation during their first three years of high school and increased students’ four-year graduation rates.”

Only a bunch of policy wonks, isolated from any reality of what goes on in New York City schools, would say something like all students who apply to the small schools of choice “are the same, on average, in all ways before they enter high school.” I am sure this is news to the parents of these students, who remember giving birth to their children instead of buying them off an assembly line.

But if you can contend that all students are the same, then you can pretend that you have controlled for the human elements of different learning styles, socioeconomic background and home life. If you can pretend in good conscience that you have controlled for these factors, then you can give your flimsy findings an air of scientific respectability.

So what does it do to the validity of this study when Bloomberg’s own sock puppet school Chancellor Dennis Walcott admits that these small schools have not taken in their fair share of students with learning problems and English Language Learners? What does it do to the validity of the study when a man like Walcott, who faithfully toes Bloomberg’s corporate line, pretty much admits that the non-small high schools (i.e. the type that this study would consider “failing”) against which these small schools were compared have been weighed down by a disproportionate number of the most difficult students to educate?

I would have gladly taken the filthy money of the Gates Foundation to conduct my own study on the issue. Since they have not yet offered to avail themselves of my services, I will be the bigger man and publish my study for free. I do not even need 12 pages of glossy paper on which to write it. All I need is this little black space and white font that I pay for out of my own pocket.

Graduation rates are up because standards are down. When you chop one large high school into 5 smaller schools, you must hire 4 new principals. That means a much higher principal-to-teacher ratio than ever before. In short, they are better able to lean on their teachers. Since the careers of these principals depend on the school’s yearly report card, and that report card is heavily contingent upon graduation rates, principals around the city have made it very clear to their teachers that students better pass no matter what. A student did not show up for class all year? No problem. Give them online credit recovery, where they can take basket-weaving 101 and pretend it is a science credit. It does not matter if kids learn anything. All that matters is that the data looks good. If the MDRC was really serious about measuring student success, they would have mentioned that most NYC public high school graduates that go on to college do not make it past their sophomore year. If this is what success looks like, I would hate to see abject failure.

But are not more and more public high school students passing the state Regents exams? Sure they are. That is because of the rampant growth of grade inflation. The biggest blow to Bloomberg’s legacy as the “education mayor” has been the statement of this obvious truth by the people who administer the Regents exams statewide.

To top it all off, as I have pointed out on this blog millions of times, the small high schools are too small to provide art, music, sports, debate, clubs and whole host of enrichment activities only made possible by pooling the resources of a large number of diverse people working cooperatively under the same roof. Instead of bringing the community together, the small schools tear it asunder. Bloomberg has replaced cooperation with competition and the children have suffered because of it.

This MDRC study is just more proof that ideas are up for sale in our day and age. Instead of “Building Knowledge to Improve Social Policy”, their motto should be “Selling Social Policy to the Highest Bidder”.

Take Action: Sign the Petition to Get Rid of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education

Picture from New York City Public School Parents website: http://nycpublicschoolparents.blogspot.com/2011/02/arne-duncan-dumb-and-dumber.html

With the backlash against SOPA, we see how effective online activism can be.

Sign the petition here.

Full text of the petition. (Original Link)

Dear President Obama,

We, the undersigned, a cross section of the nation’s teachers and their supporters, wish to express our extreme displeasure with the policies implemented during your administration by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Although many of us campaigned enthusiastically for you in 2008, it is unlikely that you will receive continued support unless the following three dimensions of your administration’s education initiatives are changed:

  1. The exclusion of teachers from policy discussions in the US Department of Education and from Education Summits called under your leadership.
  2. The use of rhetoric which blames failing schools on “bad teachers” rather than poverty and neighborhood distress.
  3. The use of federal funds to compel states and municipalities to use student test scores in the evaluation of teachers and as the basis for closing low performing schools.

Because of these policies, teachers throughout the nation have become discouraged and demoralized, undermining your own stated goals of improving teacher quality, upgrading the nation’s educational performance, and encouraging creative pedagogy rather than “teaching to the test.”

We therefore submit the following measures to put your administration’s education policy back on the right track and to bring teachers in as full partners in this effort:

  1. The removal of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education and his replacement by a lifetime educator who has the confidence of the nation’s teachers.
  2. The incorporation of parents, teachers, and school administrators in all policy discussion taking place in your administration, inside and outside the Department of Education.
  3. An immediate end to the use of incentives or penalties to compel states and municipalities to use student test scores as a basis for evaluating teachers, preferring charter schools to existing public schools, and requiring closure of low performing schools.
  4. Create a National Commission, in which teachers and parent representatives play a primary role, which explores how to best improve the quality of America’s schools.

We believe such policies will create an outpouring of good will on the part of teachers, parents and students which will promote creative teaching and educational innovation, leading to far greater improvements in the nation’s schools than policies which encourage a proliferation of student testing could ever hope to do.


The Undersigned

The End of Self-Esteem

The backlash against self-esteem is afoot. Psychologists disowned the idea of self-esteem several years ago. Education scientists, always on the lookout for hand-me-downs from the psychology field, made it the hallmark of teacher training for several years. Teachers of my generation were reared to guard against anything that might destroy a student’s confidence. It is an important reminder. But studies have shown that our obsession with self-esteem has raised a generation of cocky youngsters, with very little about which to be cocky.

Such a flimsy idea as self-esteem was bound to meet its end someday. While normally its demise would be a cause for minor celebration, there is very little to celebrate in this instance. Education researchers go where the grant money is. Deformer groups like the Gates Foundation are looking for a bold new generation of education experts who push their familiar “no excuses” agenda. Chances are that the next 10 to 20 years will see teachers being trained in the latest “no excuses” research of the education field.

No excuses is a dangerous approach to education, especially when combined with standardized exams. We see this in the youth of South Korea, who commit suicide at rates far higher than their peers around the world. Their acceptance of nothing short of the best, as measured in high-stakes exams, has bred a nation of youth who constantly worry about not being good enough. Failure means dishonor. Dishonor is a bitter to pill to swallow when one believes they only have themselves to blame.

This is the type of neurosis from which the education deformers want children to suffer. Neurotic people doubt themselves. People who doubt themselves are more likely to blame themselves when something goes wrong. People who blame themselves automatically assume their station in life can be ascribed to their abilities, decisions, ambition and work ethic. They are too busy questioning themselves to be able to question the system around them. Neurotics are easy to control.

This type of neurosis is an outgrowth of the surveillance state. We are at the point where cameras record our movements, credit cards record our purchases and Google records our searches. The goal is not necessarily to track us, although that is a direct result of surveillance. Instead, the goal is to make us so neurotic that we act as if there are eyes on us all of the time. We begin to monitor ourselves with our inner cameras. Internalization is the ultimate goal of all discipline. It is important to note that discipline is not only exerted by the state (schools, prisons, etc.) but by private institutions as well (corporations, hospitals, etc.)  A battalion only marches in formation after everyone has internalized the movements.

Marching in formation is exactly what standardized exams and “no excuses” aim to accomplish. It means kids who get their exams back will find nothing but indications of what they did wrong. A kid who gets a 75 will have an exam 25% marked by the teacher (or machine). The results of these exams, as per the deformer formula, will determine the future of these kids’ schools. In that case, “no excuses” and standardized testing are really exercises in arbitrary judgment. Considering that the deformers also happen to be the major employers of tomorrow, it behooves them to produce a populace raised in this manner.

Children reared on arbitrary judgment become workers who accept arbitrary judgment. That means people who will not question their employer when their rights are stepped on or their jobs downsized. After all, maybe they did something wrong to warrant being stepped on or downsized. Just like there were a bunch of unexplained red marks next to their wrong answers when they were kids, their unexplained turn of bad fortune was due to some mistake on their parts. People who think this way are not so much human as they are proto-human. They are cavemen who believe that the dragging of their knuckles or the stoking of a fire can bring on a volcanic eruption. “No excuses” and standardized testing is a recipe to raise a generation that will be paralyzed by self-doubting neurosis.

At last, a childhood filled with judgment and self-doubt makes one insecure. Insecure people are perfect prey for advertising and consumerism. They constantly believe they are not (choose one: smart, pretty, cool, wealthy, happy) enough, therefore they need a constant stream of (choose one: online schools, makeup, designer jeans, pyramid schemes, self-help books) to fill the void. Anything that holds out the promise of making them whole will be in high demand. They will need to be made whole only after their education breaks them in half.

We should never lose focus on who the education deformers are. They are more than just a ragtag bunch of concerned billionaires. They are the people who run the economy, controlling what is to be produced and how to produce it. Their ideal system is a nation of zombies who will do any work and buy any product. Education deform is just their way of hollowing out the American spirit. There is no room for innovation or confidence. Only neurotic troglodytes who constantly doubt themselves will be allowed to thrive in the future. While self-esteem is meeting its long overdue end, what promises to replace it is much darker than we can imagine.

Diary of a Traveling Basketball Coach

For 5 months of the school year I wear my hat as the coach of the boys’ basketball team. It has been the most pleasant surprise of my career. Most of my time is spent learning: about the game, about my boys and about winning and losing. I also get to learn a little bit about many other schools. We have to play every game on the road, traveling to over a dozen schools during the season. The schools are mostly in Manhattan, although we have the odd out-of-borough game from time to time. Although we are only at each school for a few hours, the little bits and pieces I have seen of each one says a whole lot about the Bloomberg system and education deform in general.

Many of the schools we visit are typical Bloomberg. They are large buildings that used to house large high schools. These high schools were institutions within their communities. When I was growing up, kids could identify themselves with the large high schools they attended. We were either Seward or Brandeis or Erasmus or Tech kids. Telling someone what high school you went to was a shorthand way of identifying your community, your lifestyle and your friends all at once. It was one of the ways New York City youth communicated with each other, part of the urban dialect that nobody but us understood.

So imagine the sadness I feel when we visit one of these schools from my youth, only to see that it has been chopped up into 5 small schools. We aren’t visiting great institutions as I knew them growing up. We are visiting husks of great institutions. Schools used to be named for great statesmen and American heroes. Now each of the five schools in these big buildings have names like “Academy of Social Peace” or “Young Women’s Writing Academy” (These are not real names. The real ones are a lot more ridiculous). They have traded in using school names to celebrate our heritage for using school names as way to market each school. The funny thing is that the “Academy of Social Peace” does not have to offer any programs on “social peace”, and it damn sure isn’t an “academy”. None of that matters in Bloomberg’s system. It is all about using the business strategy of marketing in what should be a public institution.

Then there is the way we are greeted. In the few large schools that have not been chopped up, me and the team check in with the School Safety agents who then direct us to the gym. I meet the opposing coach and he shows the boys where to change and what bench we will use during the game. The coaches in these schools tend to be veteran teachers, excellent coaches and consummate professionals. These are the rare types of schools. I can count the number of them we have visited on one hand.

The much more common type of school is the Bloomberg 5-in-1 monstrosity. We are not so much greeted in these schools as much as we are herded, questioned and interrogated. “What school are you from?” or “How many are you?” and “No spectators!” or “Wait here for an escort to the gym.” Sometimes there is the metal detector to deal with. Someone from one of the schools in the building (we never know which school or what title this person holds) might take a head count of my team and try to match it up to our roster of players to ensure the numbers match. You never know, a random hooligan might have slipped into our ranks without me noticing. On one hand, I understand that school buildings have a duty to monitor who comes and goes. On the other hand, I feel as if whatever administrator made the policy (and it could only have been an administrator) mistrusts my ability to monitor the group of boys I am with. I feel the Bloomberg hate for teachers and students in the way we are treated, not to mention the hate that many administrators have for us.

One of these buildings I am particularly familiar with. I used to teach in the neighborhood and I have coached many games there. It is a Bloomberg monster school with one of these ridiculous visitor policies. The teachers at the school are generally very young, most likely TFA “grads” with one foot out of the door. The coach of their team is one of my least favorite people. He is extremely young, wears horn-rimmed glasses, skinny jeans, tight sweaters, Chuck Taylors and spiked hair. He is a model of the hipster gentrification overtaking the neighborhood in which his school is located. Unlike the more professional opposing coaches, he does not shake my hand or look me in the eye or do anything beyond gruffly unlock the locker room for my boys. During the game he yells, screams, jumps onto the court and loses his bearings to such a degree that he ends up at our bench when it puts him in closer proximity to the action of the game. He is unsportsman-like and unprofessional, in both dress and demeanor. I had been running an imaginary office pool in my head where everyone takes bets on when he will quit teaching. Recently, to my surprise, I discovered that this man was not a teacher at all, but an Assistant Principal. There is no way that he can have more than 3 years in the classroom. The fact that such an un-educator-like person can make it to AP says everything you need to know about the Bloomberg system.

The last time I was in this school, a staff member there struck up a conversation with me. He was an older gentleman who definitely had the air of someone who has earned his stripes in New York City public schools. Almost as if he knew his audience, he immediately launched into a tirade against the young, petty and incompetent administrators in the building. “They aren’t educators” he said, “they have no business running a school.” If these are the same administrators that came up with the Draconian entrance policy, then he is right. The best barometer of their incompetence is my team. Whenever we are treated like criminals, my boys get this sheepish look on their faces as if they really have done something wrong. They are all good kids and fortunately do not receive this type of treatment back at our school. They bear their treatment patiently. I could not help but wonder what it is like to be a student at one of these schools who receive this type of harassment every day. You walk into the building and immediately you are searched, questioned and barked at. If my boys could be made to feel guilty for a moment, what must a kid feel like who is treated like this as a matter of policy?   

“Academies” may sound nice but they are not welcoming communities for kids. Rather, they all reflect Bloomberg’s callous disregard for inner-city youth and their teachers.