Tag Archives: Bill Gates

Secretary Duncan Changes His Stance on ‘Shaming’ Teachers

by Christopher Paslay

After backlash from the education community, Arne Duncan rethinks his position on making teacher evaluations public.      

In August 1862, Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to Horace Greeley, an editor of the New York Tribune, stating, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” 

Although I can’t read the mind of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and find out how he truly feels about publishing the evaluations of public school teachers in newspapers, I’d be willing to bet his thinking is similar to Lincoln’s: If he could save his credibility without shaming any teachers, he would do it; and if he could save it by shaming all the teachers, he would do it; and if he could do it by shaming some and leaving others alone, he would also do that.     

At least that’s how it appears.  In August of 2010, when the Los Angeles Times made public the ratings of all of the teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District, Secretary Duncan supported the idea.  The Los Angeles Times covered the story:      

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Monday that parents have a right to know if their children’s teachers are effective, endorsing the public release of information about how well individual teachers fare at raising their students’ test scores.

“What’s there to hide?” Duncan said in an interview one day after The Times published an analysis of teacher effectiveness in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest school system. “In education, we’ve been scared to talk about success.”

Duncan’s comments mark the first time the Obama administration has expressed support for a public airing of information about teacher performance—a move that is sure to fan the already fierce debate over how to better evaluate teachers.

Last week, in an interview with Education Week writer Stephen Sawchuk, Secretary Duncan did a complete about-face and said newspapers shouldn’t publish teacher ratings.  Sawchuk wrote about his interview with Duncan on his blog:

Publishing teachers’ ratings in the newspaper in the way The New York Times and other outlets have done recently is not a good use of performance data, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview yesterday.

“Do you need to publish every single teacher’s rating in the paper? I don’t think you do,” he said. “There’s not much of an upside there, and there’s a tremendous downside for teachers. We’re at a time where morale is at a record low. … We need to be sort of strengthening teachers, and elevating and supporting them.”

Why the sudden change of heart?  Perhaps Duncan is just now realizing how pointless it is to make teacher ratings public.  Other than exploiting the public’s urge to see teachers pilloried, what good can it do; it’s counterproductive to think you can humiliate educators into becoming better instructors.  Plus, the “value-added” ratings are flawed and based too heavily on standardized test scores, which policy experts argue is harming education by narrowing curriculum and overlooking the intangible benefits of good teaching.     

Of course, Duncan could be changing his tune for political purposes, because he’s suddenly realized shaming teachers isn’t going to score the kind of points he thought it once would.  Surprisingly, his attempt to fan the flames of the public’s anti-teacher mentality has backfired.  When powerful education philanthropists such as Bill Gates write opinion pieces in the New York Times titled “Shame is not the solution,” explaining that embarrassing teachers “doesn’t fix the problem because it doesn’t give them specific feedback,” and that such methods are a “cheap” way to fix real problems, people like Duncan start to listen. 

Duncan did attempt to address the reason for his sudden flip-flop in the Sawchuk interview, however.  Basically, he suggested that the whole debacle was the fault of the Los Angeles public schools.       

“What I was reacting to in L.A. was this mind-boggling situation where teachers were denied access to this data. The only way they could get it was through the newspaper,” he said. “There was clearly some level of dysfunction [in the district], that this was the only way they could get it.”

The only way teachers could get their own personal evaluation data was through the newspaper?  Did I hear this correctly?    

It’s clear there’s some egg on the Secretary’s face, and on President Obama’s by association.  But only time will tell if Duncan’s attempt to save his credibility will be as successful as Honest Abe’s strategy was to save the Union from succession.

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Bloomberg Makes Teacher Rankings Public, Nails Names to Church Door

by Christopher Paslay

The Bloomberg administration has made public the performance rankings of its city schoolteachers, despite limitations of the data and flaws in the evaluation system.   

It’s official: The New York City Education Department has won the legal right to make public the performance rankings of its teachers.  An article in Friday’s New York Times summed-up the situation:   

“After a long legal battle and amid much anguish by teachers and other educators, the New York City Education Department released individual performance rankings of 18,000 public school teachers on Friday, while admonishing the news media not to use the scores to label or pillory teachers.

The reports, which name teachers as well as their schools, rank teachers based on their students’ gains on the state’s math and English exams over five years and up until the 2009-10 school year. The city released the reports after the United Federation of Teachers exhausted all legal remedies to block their public disclosure.”

The fact that the New York City Education Department felt the need to warn the media not to use the scores to ridicule teachers is interesting because it provides a window into what is truly on their minds: The public shaming of city schoolteachers. 

Bill Gates, who has donated tens of millions of dollars to public education, agrees.  In a New York Times opinion piece headlined “Shame Is Not the Solution,” he wrote:

“Many districts and states are trying to move toward better personnel systems for evaluation and improvement. Unfortunately, some education advocates in New York, Los Angeles and other cities are claiming that a good personnel system can be based on ranking teachers according to their “value-added rating”—a measurement of their impact on students’ test scores—and publicizing the names and rankings online and in the media. But shaming poorly performing teachers doesn’t fix the problem because it doesn’t give them specific feedback.

Value-added ratings are one important piece of a complete personnel system. But student test scores alone aren’t a sensitive enough measure to gauge effective teaching, nor are they diagnostic enough to identify areas of improvement. Teaching is multifaceted, complex work. A reliable evaluation system must incorporate other measures of effectiveness, like students’ feedback about their teachers and classroom observations by highly trained peer evaluators and principals.

Putting sophisticated personnel systems in place is going to take a serious commitment. Those who believe we can do it on the cheap—by doing things like making individual teachers’ performance reports public—are underestimating the level of resources needed to spur real improvement.”

Dennis M. Walcott, Chancellor of New York public schools, said his goal isn’t to shame teachers.  “I don’t want our teachers disparaged in any way, and I don’t want our teachers denigrated based on this information,” he said.  But if this is true, why make the information public?  Isn’t it enough that teachers, principals, and other school administrators in the city have access to the data to improve instruction?

Interestingly, on top of the controversial “shame” factor associated with the public rankings, there are other problems with this cost-cutting teacher evaluation system.  Here are several:

  • Only teachers of reading and math get rated, as do those who teach grades 4 – 8. 
  • The rating system—which is based on a score of 1 to 100—has an incredibly large margin for error, according to city education officials and statisticians.  On average, a teacher’s math rating could be off by as much as 35 percentage points, and in reading by 53 points. 
  • Some teachers are being judged on as few as 10 students.
  • One teacher received a ranking for a semester when she was on maternity leave.
  • Some teachers who taught English were ranked for teaching math.  
  • City officials said 3 percent of teachers have discovered that their reports were based on classes they never taught.
  • The rankings follow a predetermined bell-curve that dictates 50 percent of teachers must be ranked “average,” 20 percent must be ranked “above average” and “below average,” and 5 percent must be ranked “high” and “low”.       

But still, the data can be used to improve instruction, right? 

Probably not.  First, the data is nearly two years old and no longer relevant.  Students have moved on to new classes and teachers have new cohorts of students.  Second, a portion of the data has been discredited by suspected cheating.  Third, only 77 percent of the 18,000 teachers ranked are still employed by the Education Department, and a number of those people have taken new jobs outside the classroom.              

So how do others in the education community feel about the newly developed public rankings?  University of Wisconsin economist Douglas N. Harris, who works at the school where the rankings were created, said that making the data public “strikes me as at best unwise, at worst, absurd.” 

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan loves the idea.  “Silence is not an option,” he said.    

Noted education scholar Diane Ravitch, although acknowledging the need for strong teacher evaluation systems, wrote that the rankings exist primarily to pin society’s problems on teachers, the universal scapegoat.    

“Of course, teachers should be evaluated. They should be evaluated by experienced principals and peers. No incompetent teacher should be allowed to remain in the classroom. Those who can’t teach and can’t improve should be fired. But the current frenzy of blaming teachers for low scores smacks of a witch-hunt, the search for a scapegoat, someone to blame for a faltering economy, for the growing levels of poverty, for widening income inequality.”

It’s still unclear how a flawed rating system that will ultimately shame many schoolteachers and hurt morale is going to effectively improve instruction.  Although the New York City Education Department insists otherwise, it seems apparent the new high profile evaluations exist primarily to satisfy the public’s urge to place schoolteachers in the stocks and nail their so-called “sins” to the church door.

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Cashing In On Kids: The Miami Herald’s Must Read Series on Charter Schools

by Christopher Paslay

Principals serving as board members and overseeing management contracts.  Discrimination against the poor and students with special needs.  These are just some of the issues the Miami Herald tackles in their recent investigative series on charters.                

“On a sun-drenched weekend in September, a group of South Florida charter school principals jetted off to a leadership retreat at The Cove, an exclusive enclave of the Atlantis resort. A Friday morning meeting gave way to champagne flutes, a dip in the pool and a trip down a waterslide. The evening ended at the casino.

Leading the toast by the pool: Fernando Zulueta, the CEO of Academica Corp., which manages the principals’ schools.

Zulueta had reason to cheer. During the past 15 years, Zulueta and his brother, Ignacio, have built Academica into Florida’s largest and richest for-profit charter school management company, and one of the largest in the country. In Miami-Dade and Broward counties, Academica runs more than 60 schools with $158 million in total annual revenue and more than 20,000 students — more pupils than 38 Florida school districts, records show. . . .

But the Zuluetas’ greatest financial success is largely unseen: Through more than two dozen other companies, the Zuluetas control more than $115 million in South Florida real estate — all exempt from property taxes as public schools — and act as landlords for many of Academica’s signature schools, records show.

These companies collected about $19 million in lease payments last year from charter schools — with nine schools paying rents exceeding 20 percent of their revenue, records show.

Academica has fostered a close-knit culture among its schools, recruiting principals and teachers who rarely leave the ranks and are often promoted from one Academica school to another — though the staffers technically work for their respective schools, not for the management company.

But the principals play another crucial role: Several also serve as board members at other Academica schools, where they approve and oversee Academica’s management contracts and the real-estate leases — including the leases with the Zulueta companies. . . .”

This is an excerpt from the story Academica: Florida’s richest charter management firm,” one of nearly a dozen recent investigative pieces in the Miami Herald’s Cashing in on Kids series.  Other articles in the series include:

Interestingly, the abuses mentioned in the above articles are not limited to Florida.  This kind of behavior is widespread, and anyone interested in keeping education fair and equitable—especially to the poor and disadvantaged—should take note. 

These articles are also a must read for the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, who recently agreed to sign over 50,000 seats—or 25 percent of District schools—to charter operators as a part of “The Philadelphia Great Schools Compact,” all in exchange for millions of Bill Gates’ dollars.

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SRC Rushes to Pass ‘Great Schools Compact,’ Despite Questionable Track Record of City Charters

by Lisa Haver

Hungry for Bill Gates’ money, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission passes a compact that agrees to turn up to 25 percent of its schools into charters by 2017.   

On November 23rd, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission passed the “Great School Compact,” an initiative sponsored by Bill Gates to help ease resistance to building new charters in the city.  The SRC did so, at least in part, to be eligible to receive money from Gates.  The compact signed by the SRC calls for an overhaul of the poorest performing quartile in the system (approximately 50,000 seats) with “high quality alternatives” by 2016-17.

In the subsection of the Compact titled Facilities, it reads, “We will coordinate planning and policies to ensure that vacant or underutilized building facilities are made available to facilitate growth of high quality schools consistent with the principles of the Compact, while ensuring that facility transactions support the need of the District to right-size its facilities inventory.”

Allow me to translate this for you: After we underfund and understaff the already struggling schools in poor neighborhoods, we will make the buildings of the schools we will close available to charter operators.  Of course, the students who are not admitted to these replacement schools will have to travel out of their neighborhoods to attend another public school. 

Although announced verbally at the end of the previous week’s SRC meeting, the press release confirming the November 23rd meeting was dated November 22nd. It stated that one purpose of the meeting was “to consider the Great Schools Compact.”  There was no indication that there would be a vote; in fact, the SRC votes only at Action Meetings, not Planning Meetings. 

But a vote was taken and the Compact was approved, despite the fact that only three of the four appointed SRC members were present and the room was only half full.  There was no opportunity for any serious community discussion.  There was not even any substantive SRC discussion of the issue. 

For these reasons, I asked the commissioners to table the vote until the next meeting, which would not be held the day before a major holiday (Thanksgiving) and would give the community time to read this compact, discuss it, and weigh the many issues presented in it before taking what amounted to a drive-by voting. 

What was the rush to get the Compact passed?  Philadelphia’s district schools have been struggling under the weight of funding cuts, overcrowded classrooms, failed experimental curricula, incompetent superintendents with their own personal and political agendas, and rising poverty in the communities they serve.  Was passing this compact going to rectify all of this overnight?

The SRC maintains that this vote is only the first of many concerning the Compact and that this action had to be taken in order to apply for the Gates funding (ironically, as of 12/7/11, the district’s current version of the Compact was rejected by Gates because it lacked “detail and rigor”).

Those affiliated with charter schools, including representatives from Boys Latin and Nueva Espreanza, had no problem with the SRC’s liberal attitude regarding school choice, however.  They took advantage of the SRC’s new policy of entertaining questions from the audience in order to put forth a number of requests. One asked that the cap on student attendance in his school be lifted.  Another asked that charters not be restricted by “bureaucratic” procedures presently imposed by the district.

These requests were made despite that fact that charters are in many cases a poor alternative to failing schools, especially when they are failing themselves.  The data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education website shows that only 54.7 percent of charters in the city reached AYP last year; several have failed to achieve AYP in the last five years, including Nueva Esperanza Academy; interestingly, GreatSchools.org assigned Nueva Esperanza a rating of only 3 out of 10.  Is this school’s leadership asking to expand its enrollment so that the district can send more students to a failing school?  

Obviously, the SRC needs to read the data from the PA Dept. of Ed. before it passes any proposal to increase the number of Philadelphia charter schools or expand enrollment.  The commissioners must make more time available for students, parents, teachers and community members to read and comment on any compact which closes neighborhood schools. They must take seriously the testimony of the families whose children would be forced to go elsewhere.

In other words, they must demonstrate that their promises of more transparency and community involvement are not empty ones.

Lisa Haver is an education activist and retired teacher.

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‘American Teacher’ Shows the Other Side of ‘Superman’

by Christopher Paslay

“American Teacher,” the new education documentary narrated by Matt Damon, dares to portray schoolteachers as competent professionals.    

In an age of school reform, in an age where the phrase failing schools has become boilerplate, the film “American Teacher” arrives at a surprising conclusion: schoolteachers aren’t the bums they’re made out to be.  In fact, many of them are extremely dedicated, and work really long hours.  They write lessons, and grade stacks of essays, and bond with their students.  They counsel, and mentor, and spend up to $3,000 of their own money to buy supplies.  Many do this while holding a second job.  And raising children.  And managing a home.  And maintaining a relationship with a spouse. 

As Neil Genzlinger wrote in his review of the film for the New York Times, “It quickly knocks down the idiocy often voiced by right-wing television commentators that teachers are goof-offs who work six-hour days and take three months off every year. The director, Vanessa Roth, follows several teachers through their long days at school and into their personal lives, where low pay is a constant worry that affects marriages and contributes to an alarming turnover rate.”

“American Teacher” is for the most part refreshingly free from underlying politics and agendas.  It does suggest the teaching profession should be made more attractive by increasing pay, but it never advocates performance pay.  It stays away from the subject of unions, school choice, and the achievement gap; unlike “Waiting for Superman,” this lack of controversy may very well keep it from receiving the attention it deserves. 

Its wholesomeness and respect for America’s schoolteachers goes against the grain of the message being promoted by education reformers such as Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee, whose organizations have tens of millions of dollars at their disposal to paint educators in an unflattering light; Bill Gates donated $2 million to promote “Waiting for Superman,” the documentary that noted education scholar Diane Ravitch called “propagandistic” for cherry-picking statistics and test data in order to help further expand charter schools and privatize education.   

“American Teacher” shows the other side of “Superman,” which is probably enough to sink it like a stone.  This isn’t to say those interested in the real lives and careers of our nation’s schoolteachers should pass on it.  On the contrary, it’s a film the American public needs to see.

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Bills Gates ‘Compact’ Comes with Strings Attached; SRC Ponders Trading ‘Seats’ for Money

by Lisa Haver

To secure a Bill Gates Foundation grant, the SRC would have to agree to overhaul 25 percent of District schools by 2017 and continue privatizing education.       

Last Wednesday, Philadelphia became the 10th major city to be courted by Bill Gates when his “District-Charter Collaboration Compact,” an initiative to help ease resistance to building new charters, was presented for consideration to the School Reform Commission.  Gates has taken on a reputation as a school reformer and philanthropist, donating money to struggling school districts in big cities, including Baltimore, Denver, Los Angeles, and New York.  But the money he offers isn’t free; it comes with strings attached.   

To be eligible to receive a grant from Gates, schools districts must agree to his vision of school reform and pledge cooperation by signing a “compact”.  This compact includes, among other things, promoting the expansion of charters and agreeing to shut down schools that are deemed failing.  The compact being reviewed by the SRC in Philadelphia calls for an overhaul of the poorest performing quartile in the system (approximately 50,000 seats) with “high quality alternatives” by 2016-17. 

The problem with Gates and his education grants is that he doesn’t just sign the check and let the city decide what’s best for its students.  In order for districts to qualify for money, they must agree to his agenda.  Just as Grover Norquist, who is accountable to no one, has tied the hands of the Super Committee with his no new taxes pledge, Gates undermines the authority of local school boards with his pro-charter, pro-privatization “compact”.  Bill Gates has joined the ranks of school “reformers” such as Michelle Rhee who, despite having no degree in education and virtually no experience teaching, have appointed themselves experts in the field. 

Diane Ravitch, in her recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System:  How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, describes some of the destruction the Gates Foundation has wrought.  Manuel High, one of Denver’s oldest and most prestigious schools, was forced to divide itself into three separate schools because of the “small school” agenda Gates was pushing at the time; his ensuing disruption caused the school board to close it temporarily. Mountlake Terrace High, just outside Seattle, suffered the loss of many teachers and administrators in 2004 after being forced to split into five separate schools in order to receive the Gates funding. 

The Philadelphia School District, which is still recovering from a $630 million budget deficit, is in no position to refuse Gates’ offer.  How can the SRC say no to free money when the district is so deep in the hole?

The reality, of course, is that the money is not free.  The price is the autonomy of the SRC.  The price is the democratic procedure in the city and the state under which the community and its elected leaders make informed decisions about its schools; what the city and District believes is best for its children will become secondary to the dictates of the “compact”. 

Ravitch writes: “The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one.  If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them.  They are bastions of unaccountable power.”

This “compact” demanded by Gates, which is now under review by the SRC, demands that each and every school in the bottom 25 percent of the District (approximately 50,000 seats) be overhauled or turned into a charter by 2017.     

What’s most concerning is that charters, as a whole, perform no better than traditional neighborhood schools.  Of the 73 Philadelphia charters that took the PSSA in 2011, only 60 percent, (44 schools), made AYP; these schools are a far cry from what Gates bills as “high performing”.  Worse still are the conclusions drawn by Stanford University’s CREDO study, the most comprehensive report on Pennsylvania charter schools performed to date.  CREDO stated:

This report covers academic achievement growth at charter schools in Pennsylvania over a four-year period [2007-2010]. Overall, charter school performance in Pennsylvania lagged in growth compared to traditional public schools. Looking at the distribution of school performance, 60% of the charter schools performed with similar or better success than the traditional public schools in reading and 53% of charter schools performed with similar or better success in math compared to traditional public schools. Performance at cyber charter schools was substantially lower than the performance at brick and mortar charters with 100% of cyber charters performing significantly worse than their traditional public school counterparts in both reading and math.       

Charter performance aside, where is the commitment to improving all public schools?  Instead of a helping hand, there is only a raised yardstick.  The Gates compact lays out the future of our schools in no uncertain terms:  “Failure to significantly improve would bring meaningful consequences, including closure.”

The members and policies of the new SRC has given many Philadelphians hope.  There is an honest commitment to transparency and community involvement.  For the first time ever, during Wednesday’s meeting, the floor was opened to questions from the audience. But how much power does this body truly have when its policies can be dictated by billionaires with deep pockets and rigid contracts?

Lisa Haver is an education activist and retired teacher.

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