Monthly Archives: June 2011

Secretary Duncan Uses NCLB Waivers to Push School Reform Agenda

by Christopher Paslay

In 2001, when George Bush unveiled No Child Left Behind, he was promising America the impossible.  The idea of 100 percent of all children being proficient in math and reading by the year 2014 was more than pie-in-the-sky—it was educational propaganda. 

The reality of the matter is, there are many, many children who, no matter how much time and money are invested in their educations, will never be able to analyze and interpret complex pieces of literature, nor will they be able to work though advanced algebraic and geometric equations; these are the skills required to score “proficient” in math and reading at the high school level on current standardized tests under NCLB.

Not all children are born with the requisite mathematical and linguistic abilities to perform such tasks (imagine if all students in America were required to dunk a basketball to be considered “on grade level” in athletics).  When you factor in poverty, the break-down of the nuclear family, poor nutrition, and the devastating impact television, cell phones, video games, and the internet are having on attention spans, the idea that 100 percent of American children will be “proficient” in math and reading by 2014 is ridiculous. 

But in 2001, when Bush proposed NCLB, the bill wasn’t necessarily about feasibility or even realistic goal setting.  It was mostly about control

As those familiar with both politics and public schools know, when you control education, you control large amounts of money (billions of tax dollars), jobs, votes, etc.  This is the very reason why education must stay “broken”; so the teachers, parents, principals, etc. will continue to be stripped of any real control, and the politicians can stay in the driver’s seat.

But with new politicians come new sets of rules—structured to fit specific agendas.  Which is why President Obama’s Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, is now declaring (surprise, surprise!) that Bush’s NCLB law is broken and needs to be fixed. 

Estimates on standardized test scores predict that this year, as much as 80 percent of America’s public schools will be labeled “failing.”  Some educators, such as noted education scholar and New York University Professor Diane Ravitch, believe nearly 95 percent of schools will be designated “failing” under NCLB by 2014.    

“This law is fundamentally broken, and we need to fix it this year,” Arne Duncan recently told the House education committee.  Interestingly, Duncan’s way of “fixing” the law is to force states to do things his way, and his way alone; schools in danger of being labeled failing must forfeit all control to Duncan and adopt the Obama Administration’s National Reform Model (charterizing schools; replacing principals; overhauling staff by arbitrarily firing teachers, etc.).

According to a recent story in Education Week:

“States seeking relief from the requirements of the 9-year-old No Child Left Behind Act are taking a wait-and-see approach to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s plan to offer those that embrace his reform priorities wiggle room when it comes to the law’s mandates.

But the idea of waivers is already facing hurdles on Capitol Hill—drawing criticism even from the administration allies. And while the department points to waiver powers that Congress included in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, some naysayers are wondering whether Mr. Duncan has the legal authority to offer states broad leeway on the law’s accountability requirements.

Details on the waiver proposal remained sketchy last week, but it’s clear that states will have to embrace an all-or-nothing package of reforms from the department in exchange for relief under the ESEA, the current version of which is the NCLB law.

‘This is not an a la carte menu,’ Secretary Duncan said during a June 13 call with reporters.”

Indeed it’s not a la carte.  It’s become quite clear that Secretary Duncan does not want individual parents, communities, or teachers having a say when it comes to educating their children; a more appropriate term from his educational menu would be prix fixe

This, interestingly, is a tactic local school district leaders are currently employing in Philadelphia. 

Whether their dictatorial decisions will pay off in the future remains to be seen.

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Are School District Leaders Protected by Powers in Washington?

by Christopher Paslay

“The school superintendent, Arlene Ackerman, is here and doing a great job.”

            –President Barack Obama’s remarks from his speech at Julia R. Masterman High School, Philadelphia, PA, September 14, 2010. 

There is one thing noteworthy about the way administrators have run the Philadelphia School District over the past three years: their education agenda and initiatives are right from President Obama’s playbook in Washington. 

Early in 2009, when the President chose former Chicago schools superintendent Arne Duncan as his Education Secretary, there emerged a new plan for public education in America.  Known as the “National Reform Model,” Obama and Duncan set in motion a movement that has radically changed traditional public schools as we know them (tragically, as test scores and graduation rates continue to show, not for the better).

There are four school intervention models included in Obama’s national reform plan.  They are titled “Turnaround,” “Restart,” “School Closure,” and “Transformation.”

As explained by PSEA.org:

“The Turnaround model requires schools to implement nine broad strategies, including replacement of the principals, high-quality professional development, adoption of new governance, and replacement of at least 50 percent of staff.

The Transformation model includes a new evaluation system for teachers and principals, high-quality professional development and design and development of curriculum with teacher and principal involvement.

The Restart model enables a district to re-open a school as a charter school or elect to have an education management organization run the school.

School Closure enables districts to transfer students to other, higher-achieving schools within the district’s boundaries, within a reasonable proximity.”

Do these reform plans sound a lot like those interventions contained in Dr. Ackerman’s Imagine 2014?  The Philadelphia Inquirer thinks they do.  In an editorial published in September of 2010, the newspaper wrote, “much of [Dr. Ackerman’s] five-year strategic plan almost mirrors Obama’s proposals.”   

In some places the Ackerman and Obama agenda are indeed identical.  In fact, in 2010, in order to receive stimulus money from the federal government’s SIG program (School Improvement Grant), the Philadelphia School District literally had to sign an agreement with the government stating that they agreed to commit to the four intervention models.       

And sign they did.  The District sold its soul to Washington and dove headfirst into a reform plan that took control away from the citizens of Philadelphia and placed it—along with millions of tax dollars—in the hands of charter schools and education management organizations and all manner of untested, experimental reform programs.   

The fact that District officials so eagerly embraced the National Reform Model and are pushing an agenda direct from Washington might explain why they are able to get away with so many missteps (think past the current $629 million deficit to the 2010 controversy over security contracts and even past that to the 2009 debacle with Asian students at South Philly High School), any of which would have normally cost a top administrator his or her job.     

In 2007, when former Philadelphia School District Superintendent Paul Vallas discovered a “surprise” $73 million deficit, he resigned.  Granted, he had another job waiting for him in New Orleans, but there was real pressure coming from Mayor Street to hold him accountable.  Likewise, there was pressure to hold James Nevels, the Chairman of the School Reform Commission, accountable; Nevels also resigned and was replaced with new leadership. 

It seems clear, however, that current District leaders have no plans of going anywhere.  Perhaps the powers that be in Washington have too much invested in the Philadelphia School District and the current direction it’s heading.  This just might explain why Mayor Nutter, as well as the rest of the City, continues to stand down to School District officials.       

Of course, Mayor Nutter will claim differently.  He will tell the public that he has things in control, that he just made the District sign an “Accountability Agreement,” but what is this, really?  Is it anything more than smoke and mirrors?  (Is the pending audit by the IRS, which is now in limbo, much of the same?) 

This isn’t to take away from the recent efforts of a few brave local leaders—such as Philadelphia City Councilmen Bill Green and PA State Reps Angel Cruz and Mike McGeehan—to try to bring an end to the District’s troubled leadership.

McGeehan continues to call for Philadelphia School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s resignation in order to bring some financial credibility back to the District in the eyes of Harrisburg. 

In a letter to PA Governor Tom Corbett, McGeehan stated the following: “I am requesting that you, on behalf of the taxpayers of the Commonwealth and the school children of Philadelphia, compel the School Reform Commission to remove Superintendent Ackerman. The continuing controversy surrounding Ms. Ackerman does not serve the best interest of the taxpayers or children of Philadelphia. I ask you to use your authority to request the SRC to immediately end her tumultuous tenure.”  

State Rep. Angel Cruz has also called for laws to regulate the power of the District superintendent.  “The SRC clearly is not properly managing the superintendent or the district,” Cruz told his colleagues in Harrisburg. “My bill would give voters the option to choose the people who are running our school district.”

Philadelphia City Councilman Bill Green, in addition, blasted District leadership in a recent Inquire article headlined, “School District has a management deficit.”  In it Green stated, “Recent events have shown that the crisis at the Philadelphia School District is more about oversight and stewardship than it is about dollars and cents.”

Even the local press seems to be questioning the District’s leadership.  In a recent poll philly.com asked readers, “Does the Philadelphia School District need new management?”  The results were quite telling:  371 folks said YES (97.4%); 3 answered No (.8%); and 7 responded Not Sure (1.8%).

Not that the District seems to care about what anybody thinks about their ability to do their job; they continue to operate as if it were business as usual.  And all the while Philadelphia’s children—as well as the tax payers—continue to pick up the tab. 

Tragically, perhaps because of a blessing from Washington, it appears as if this pattern of reckless management has no foreseeable end.

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District spent its way into massive shortfall

“The French novelist Honoré de Balzac once wrote: “Finance, like time, devours its own children.” The Philadelphia School District‘s administrators should take a moment to ponder that. Their financial ineptitude and gross mismanagement of public money has put the children of Philadelphia in an unfortunate position.

The district’s budget deficit for the 2011-12 school year, which stands at $629 million, has prompted talk of doing away with full-day kindergarten; cutting athletic, art, and music programs; and laying off thousands of employees, many of them teachers. . . .”

This is an excerpt from my commentary in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “District spent its way into massive shortfall.”  Please click here to read the entire article.  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for reading.

–Christopher Paslay

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Philadelphia’s Full-Day Kindergarten Hostage Crisis

by Christopher Paslay

Anyone familiar with early childhood education will tell you that years three through six in a child’s life are extremely important.  It’s during this time that a child’s brain is the most impressionable, especially when it comes to language formation and critical thinking skills.  In their groundbreaking book, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley showed that a child’s cognitive development is greatly influenced by the type of interaction he or she has with parents and teachers.  The amount and kind of language children hear as youngsters are strongly correlated with their IQs later in life.

Outside of the instructional value of early childhood education, of course, there is the very practical issue of child care; many mothers and fathers work fulltime jobs and desperately need caregivers for their children.         

In light of the importance of early childhood school programs, why would the Philadelphia School District consider cutting full-day kindergarten in order to balance the budget?  If one were to speculate on the matter they might come up with the following conclusion: the District held full-day kindergarten hostage as a means to get more money from the city and state.    

As we know now, the state didn’t bite; PA Governor Tom Corbett stuck to his guns and held tight to his budget.  The city, as evidenced by Mayor Nutter’s recent tax increase proposals, is going through the motions of trying to raise $110 million—not even one-quarter of the $629 million needed to balance the District’s books for the coming school year.

But as it turns out, the District doesn’t need money from the city or the state to save full-day kindergarten after all.  On Friday, June 3, Superintendent Ackerman announced at an afternoon news conference, “I’ve heard the voices of the community, the voices of our dedicated parents.”

Miraculously, like the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes, the District stumbled upon federal Title I money (how did this get here?) and saved full-day kindergarten like Jesus Himself. 

“We are trying our best to use the funds in a strategic way,” Dr. Ackerman told the public.  The District’s “strategy,” curiously, was news to Mayor Nutter.  Apparently, his office was kept in the dark about the kindergarten deal, and they were not happy.

“It’s a big problem,” Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald said Friday night after the news was announced.          

Nutter needn’t feel slighted.  No one, not Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz or even the IRS have a concrete understanding of the workings of the District’s finances; currently, both offices are conducting audits on the district’s books because of questionable accounting practices and “material weaknesses” found in their financial statements.          

For the record, here are some known facts about the District’s finances:

  • In the 2008-09 school year, the District had an operating budget of $2.75 billion and a student enrollment of 169,000.  They had full-day kindergarten; art, music, and athletic programs; and all employees had jobs.
  • In the 2009-10 school year, the budget grew to approximately $3 billion.  Enrollment went down to 165,000.
  • In the 2010-11 school year, the budget grew to $3.2 billion.  Enrollment dropped to 162,000.
  • In the coming 2011-12 school year, the projected budget is approximately $2.8 billion.  There is now a $629 million deficit.  Drastic cuts will be made.  Thousands of employees will lose their jobs.  Art, music, and athletic programs are all in jeopardy.      

Incredibly, the words “gross mismanagement” have yet to roll from the tongue of any government official outside of State Rep. Michael McGeehan, who has bravely called for Ackerman’s resignation in order to bring some financial credibility back to the Philadelphia School District.   

Of course, a lack of credibility hasn’t stopped the District from reopening contracts with school unions to ask for more concessions.  Nor has it dissuaded school leaders from holding kindergarteners and their parents hostage for financial reasons.

The full-day kindergarten hostage crisis might be over in Philadelphia, but the fact that the District would use early childhood education as leverage to squeeze more money from tax payers speaks volumes about the District’s principles and its leadership.

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