Monthly Archives: December 2014

Before Accepting the Portfolio Model, Shouldn’t We Check to See if It Works?

It is commonly expected that Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, will be announcing that some version of the “portfolio model” will be put in place somewhere in Michigan.  It likely that this model will be imposed on our most marginalized communities, because that’s essentially how colonialism tends to spread.

Before accepting this model, it would have been really nice if Snyder and friends would check into the evidence that shows whether or not the portfolio model does indeed work.

Part of this assumes, of course, that we know what we mean by saying something “works.” And within this assumed understanding are obscured questions: How does a system function?  Who does the system benefit? Who is hurt? Who are the winners? And who are the losers?

In this particular case, when determining whether or not it works, the question becomes, how does the portfolio model function as a system?

And, if we look at the portfolio model in this way, we find that it does work!

It works to dispossess communities from their commonly held social capital.  It works to provide much profit for those that own charters, publishing companies and those that produce educational software.  It works to benefit those who already hold power and are looking to extend that power.  So yes, it works.

However, there is little to no evidence that it works to benefit the students it purportedly is designed to benefit.

How does it dispossess communities from what has been commonly held and then is used to profit others?  Let me point you to the important writing of Kristen Buras, who has studied in-depth  the way that the portfolio model has functioned in New Orleans:

“Educational reforms in New Orleans are not designed to respond to oppressed communities or to enhance public school performance, even if they are often couched in such language. Rather, this is a feeding frenzy, a revivified Reconstruction-era blueprint for how to capitalize on public education and line the pockets of entrepreneurs (and their black allies) who care less about working-class schoolchildren and their grandmothers and much more about obtaining public and private monies and an array of lucrative contracts...These reforms are a form of accumulation by dispossession, which David Harvey defines as process in which assets previously belonging to one group are put in circulation as capital for another group. In New Orleans, this has included the appropriation and commodification of black children, black schools and black communities for white exploitation and profit.” (Emphasis added)

It seems a bit ironic that Governor Snyder has been palling around with former Louisiana Schools Chief Paul Pastorek (paid for by the Broad Foundation- kind of like some weird escort service) and receiving his advice through the Fall of 2014. So, although we have already experienced the dispossession brought on by the establishment of Michigan’s own state-wide Educational Achievement Authority, it is clear, and shocking, that the lessons available through the continued failure of the EAA have not been learned.

While this dispossession is bound to continue, there is little evidence that students have benefited as much as from the portfolio model system as others have.  The National Education Policy Center has put out a report written by Elizabeth DeBray of the University of Georgia, and Huriya Jabbar of the University of California, Berkeley, entitled, Review of Two Presentations on the Portfolio School Model.  This report is important, because it actually looks at the evidence behind the so-called “New Orleans Miracle.”

The report aligns with Buras’s findings. As DeBray and Jabbar write, “Professor Lance Hill of Tulane, for example, described the perceptions of some local residents who believe they have lost democratic control of the schools. He wrote in a local blog in 2011:

The corporate education forces that advocate a free-market business model have developed a ‘beachhead’ strategy in New Orleans. Taking advantage of the evacuation of 90% of the population after Katrina, they set in motion educational changes that bypassed the elected school board and destroyed virtually all local democracy and accountability.” (Emphasis added)

For those who follow the EAA, this may sound familiar.

DeBray and Jabbar start their report by restating the positive claims of the New Orleans Recovery School District and the Achievement School District of Memphis, Tennessee. It then provides the context of teaching in New Orleans during the time leading up to their study (a crucial step that “no excuses” reformers refuse to consider- the “social context” that reforms occur within) and then continues on to evaluate the claims made by the two school districts.

Portfolio Model 2

On the purported student gains:

“The presentation makes several claims about student achievement in New Orleans, including the assertion that RSD schools outpace the state, displaying a graph with impressive growth from 2007 to 2013, and that New Orleans is closing the achievement gap. A greater percentage of African American students in New Orleans are proficient on state high-stakes tests than their peers across the state. However, whether these reported gains are due to the portfolio model or to demographic changes in the city overall is unclear. Researchers such as Gumus-Dawes et al. contend that the modest performance seen in the New Orleans community may be the result of student selection. Therefore, while the audience is led to assume that the improvements are due to the portfolio related educational reforms post-Katrina, it is not possible to make causal claims with these data.” (Emphasis added)

In other, words, though it is true that “modest gains” have occurred, it remains unclear what caused the gains, and the suggestion is that the gains may be due to the students who were selected for attendance in the new model.  (Hmm…) As the writers state, it is “not possible to make causal claims with these data,” though, in spite of this impossibility, the Recovery District has done so.

On school closures and accountability:

“The RSD has acted to close or transform low-performing charters. Since 2005, 11 charters have been shut down and two have changed governance.30 Therefore, this essential piece of the portfolio mechanism—closing failing schools—has indeed been accomplished. Yet the problem of reconstitutions and closures is a great deal more complex than these slides portray.
The ‘shifting the bell curve’ slide raises a larger question about the sustainability of continuous reconstitution by the RSD. Any district that accepts the portfolio/reconstitution and closure model must deal with the questions of where students go when schools are shut down and whether the educational quality will be higher. As Jennifer King Rice and Betty Malen wrote in their review of the literature on school reconstitution:

Reconstitution may enhance the stock of human and cultural capital in schools, but the evidence we reviewed does not establish that reconstitution is a dependable or effective mechanism for attracting and retaining large pools of highly qualified educators in low-performing schools or for enhancing social capital in those settings. Indeed, some studies reveal that reconstitution may deplete those critical resources.  School closures in 2012–2013 have been especially contentious and some reports by investigative journalists have reported that students are ending up in similarly failing
schools. (Emphasis added)

Again, this “reconstitution” of so-called “failing schools” will sound familiar to those following the EAA.  Though there is no evidence that this “reconstitution” does anything positive, (in fact, the evidence suggests that it has a negative impact on the all important and already frayed social capital) the portfolio model continues to “reconstitute.”

On improving “human capital.”  (I think “improving ‘human capital'” is code for making better teachers.  Because we know that “failing schools” are full of “failed teachers.” Please.):

“The presenters do not define what they mean by ‘improving human capital,’ and it is thus a questionable claim. Given what we know about post-Katrina human capital shifts, and a greater reliance on programs such as The New Teacher Project and TFA, it is unclear whether these teachers are all qualified to work well with students and whether they have had any significant impact on student learning in New Orleans. In fact, there is no system wide reporting of exactly who teaches in New Orleans, their background and qualifications, or their teaching practices, let alone impact studies. Furthermore, while programs like TFA bring college students with degrees from prestigious institutions, the research on their effectiveness is mixed, typically with small effects in either direction.” (Emphasis added)

Does anyone else think that it’s strange that this education reform movement, which has been so dependent on a  twisted sense of accountability, goes to great lengths to avoid accountability?

It actually works to destroy the locally held accountability of democracy by extracting schools from their community, and replace it with….what?



I’m left wondering.

The evidence suggests that it certainly doesn’t have to do with forgotten kids.

I don’t do DeBray and Jabbar’s report credence.  Please be sure to read the whole thing here:  

Click to access ttr-portfoliorecovery.pdf

No More Surprises

Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder is about to make an announcement that will move him to the prominent fore in the education reform movement not only statewide, but nationally as well.  Snyder has done much already to shape the education conversation in Michigan and nationally (more on that later) and, as the former CEO of a company on the forefront of casino capitalism, he clearly has the background to weigh heavily in this particular discussion.

Snyder will most likely announce some version of “portfolio districts” as the way forward.  The name “portfolio” is another misappropriated title taken from the business world.  A “business portfolio” is a collection of products and services offered by a company.  As applied to the education field, a district using this model would, as described by Kenneth Saltman,  “…build portfolios of schools that encompass a variety of educational approaches offered by different vendors…”

Saltman has written an important report on the portfolio model, Urban School Decentralization and the Growth of “Portfolio Districts”  (

Click to access Saltman_PortfolioDistricts.pdf

.)  In this brief, Saltman outlines four characteristics of portfolio districts:  “The portfolio district approach merges four strategies: 1) decentralization; 2) charter school expansion; 3) reconstituting/closing “failing” schools; and 4) test-based accountability.”

Elements of a portfolio districtFor those who are familiar with the current education reform movement, there are no surprises here.  And as a pro business market fundamentalist, it is predictable that Governor Snyder would promote a portfolio model.

At the same time, it is crucial to recognize the history that Snyder has created in order to fertilize the ground for this move.

Skunk Works and the Disconnecting Schools from Local Community

In the Spring of 2013, it was revealed that Snyder had put together a secret group in order to design a plan that  “lets parents use tax dollars to choose between private and public schools—something prohibited by the state Constitution.”   This group was headed by Richard McLellan, a pro-voucher, pro school choice advocate.  The intention of this group was to create a model that dismantled local districts in favor of a system that would allow students the choice to take their state funding to any school in the state, including virtual schools.  This was what Snyder called the “anytime, anywhere, any pace” model, a techno utopian dream, and one that, as I have written before, hugely misunderstands the  importance of the teacher.

And a crucial element in this plan was the disconnection of schools from the democratic accountability of local communities.  Essentially, this model imagines humans as abstracted from the relationships and accountability that local community provides.  This cannot be overstated.

In his important book, Community: The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block writes, “The essential work is to create social fabric, both for its own sake and to enable chosen accountability among citizens.  When citizens care for each other, they become accountable to each other.  Care and accountability create a healthy community.” It is important to understand that the portfolio model is based on a way of imagining humans as alienated from the relationships, context, and accountability that can only be provided by a community where people are known.  As traditional conservatism understands, local community is significant, thus the need to “conserve” community and the values it represents. Traditional conservatives understand that as part of the fabric of their communities, local school districts actually matter in people’s lives.  Snyder and other current Republicans are too often misnamed as conservatives when they in fact, like many current members of the Democrat party, are representatives of neoliberal market fundamentalism, which views everything from the one-dimensional value of money, and as a result, rips apart the social fabric.

When the Skunk Works group was outed, it was disassembled, reconstituted under a different name, and put under the control of the state superintendent. Little of this particular group has been heard from since, though iterations of its plan continue with its DNA clearly seen in the “district portfolio” plan.  (For more on  the history of Skunk Works, see Things Are Getting Stinky.)

The EAA and the Rise of Charters

I and others have written extensively about Michigan’s Educational Achievement Authority.  (See herehere and here.) For the sake of this article, simply note that the EAA has taken schools out of the Detroit Public School system and put them into a “state-wide” district of the lowest performing 5%.  For a variety of reasons, those schools are all Detroit schools.  (See Mary Mason and David Arsen’s important report on the establishment of the EAA. It is linked at the bottom of this piece.)  It then instituted the techno utopian dream of a computer driven, “personalized” curriculum that sees little need for qualified teachers and has proved a colossal failure.  Again, the EAA’s elements of misunderstanding the role of the teacher, of a techno utopian vision, and the underestimation of the importance of community  are all replicated in the portfolio model.

While the EAA was on the rise, so were for profit charters in the state of Michigan.  Legislation was passed that allowed for the expansion of charters in the state.  Eighty percent these charters are now run for profit and Michigan has the dubious honor of leading the nation in the number of for profit charters.

Meanwhile, the Detroit Free Press has done an important expose on the effectiveness of Michigan’s charters.  (Read with some wariness.)

Funding and Emergency Management

Throughout his term as governor, Snyder has pushed for broader establishment of Emergency Management, which assumes that local democratically elected institutions are fundamentally unable to handle their finances.  It then allows an Emergency Manager to be appointed, and gives this manager autocratic control over virtually every aspect of these formerly democratic institutions.  The laws that allow for this were developed and promulgated by the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council, and in Michigan, by the right-wing think tank , The Mackinac Center for Public Policy. (Read more here.)

In his current history of Detroit Public Schools, Bill Wylie-Kellerman writes,

“Though Public Act 436, which allegedly authorizes emergency management, allows that elected bodies taken over and supplanted may vote after 18 months to put out an EM, the courts have ruled that this means the Governor simply has to install a new and different EM. Emergency Management is a permanent feature of black cities in Michigan.

The elected and unpaid school board, though constantly tarred in the media with corruption or incompetence or simply ignored, has continued to function ‘in exile’ as a body conscientiously accountable to parents, students, and citizens, consistently resisting takeover. (Would that our city council had an ounce of such vision or fiber!) Believe it or not, the State Attorney General sued the district representatives on the board for being elected. Since they were duly seated and sworn in, the maneuver failed. Now a foundation-funded and nonprofit-orchestrated campaign seeks oust them altogether for a structure of ‘mayoral control’…Emergency management has been the blunt instrument of privatization.”

At the same time that Emergency Management has been on the rise, the financial conditions necessary for instituting it have also been on the rise.  Mere coincidence? Hmm…

Since taking over as governor, Snyder has slashed business taxes to the ‘tune of 1.6 billion dollars a year…leaving a huge hole in the School Aid Fund.”

Let me quote more from Chris Savage, at Eclectablog:

“Gov. Snyder also took the unprecedented step of diverting a portion of the School Aid Fund to pay partially offset huge cuts he had made to higher education which he claims to value so much. Before Rick Snyder came into office, this had never happened before. How much of a hit did the School Aid Fund take from this diversion of money to higher ed?

$400,000,000 a year.

So, let’s do the math here:

+ $400,000,000.00 

Yup, that’s a billion dollars, kids. Actually it’s a bit more because the hit the Student Aid Fund took from the business tax cut is MORE than $600,000,000.”

That’s a lot of money that schools aren’t getting.

And the result?

Fifty seven school districts in the state of Michigan are now operating under a deficit.


To put it another way, fifty-seven school districts are now ripe for being taken over by emergency management.

Or, remembering Wylie-Kellerman’s frame, fifty-seven school districts are now ripe for privatization.

Follow the logic.

Connect the dots.


So this is the current context for Snyder’s upcoming announcement.  This is the groundwork that has been laid, some transparently, some not so much.

But with this in mind, it’s at least clear that a pattern has been established so there should be no more surprises.

Be sure to read Mary L. Mason and David Arsen’s report, Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority and the Future of Public Education in Detroit: The Challenge of Aligning Policy Design and Policy Goals: 

Click to access Saltman_PortfolioDistricts.pdf

Looking Back to the Future in Detroit (& Everywhere)

Mary L. Mason and David Arsen have just come out with an analysis of the effectiveness of Michigan’s Educational Achievement Authority in Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority and the
Future of Public Education in Detroit: The Challenge of
Aligning Policy Design and Policy Goals. (Arsen is a well-respected professor at Michigan State University.) The timing of this report is important as the EAA serves a predecessor to the current clamor in Detroit (and elsewhere) for a “portfolio district” based on the New Orleans model. Not only does it serve as a dispassionate indictment of the EAA, it doubles as an indictment of the market fundamentalism of Michigan’s Governor Snyder and all others who look to loosen public education from the locally held context of democratically elected accountability.  Finally, it serves as a warning to Governor Snyder’s upcoming announcement on schools in  Michigan.

Arsen and Mason carefully unveil the sordid history of the development of the EAA and its impact.

As the report is long, I have highlighted excerpts.

You are welcome.

(The whole report is so worth your time- read it here

It  begins by providing the vision behind Snyder’s plan:

“The Governor’s Education Agenda: Disruptive Innovation
In April 2011, soon after assuming office and just two months before announcing the EAA, Governor Snyder issued a special message setting forth his agenda for public education (Snyder, 2011). Noting the mediocre performance of Michigan’s public schools by several measures and the need to compete on a world scale, the governor called for sweeping changes in the provision of educational services. The plan offered a hopeful vision of educational innovation, entrepreneurship, and markets that would usher in improved models of instruction and student outcomes across the state. The policies would disrupt the prevailing complacency and mediocrity, ‘jettison the status quo’ (p. 2), and move Michigan ‘from school systems to systems of schools'(p. 8)”

The governor’s agenda called for an expansion of charter schools and online education and changes in teacher employment policies. To expand charters, it called for removing the cap on the number of charter schools and permitting a charter board to oversee multiple schools under a single charter. To expand online education, it called for reducing state and local regulations on seat time, length of school year, length of school day and week, and the traditional
configuration of classrooms and instruction. The governor stated that: ‘every child in Michigan who needs or wants up to two hours of daily online education must receive it’ (p. 8). Finally, he also called for changes in teacher tenure laws that would make tenure more difficult to attain and ease the dismissal of tenured teachers, as well as changes in the way teachers are evaluated and paid and alternative routes to entering the teaching profession.”

The report covers the EAA’s nuanced approach to democracy:

“…responsibility for the EAA’s accountability rests almost exclusively with the governor. The system is designed to be accountable to him or her. The governor appoints a majority of the board and executive committee while the other members are appointed by people who themselves are governor appointees. All can be removed at any time. Board members, therefore, cannot exercise much independent discretion. Interested parties may express their views to the EAA board and executive committee, but formal opportunities to do so are more limited than in the case of traditional public schools.”

The academic effectiveness as measured by Snyder’s approach to achievement:

“In the second year, MEAP scores, reflecting a full year in the EAA, showed that few students were meeting state standards. EAA Chancellor John Covington, however, announced that scores did show improvement toward meeting the standards (Education Achievement Authority, 2014b). Wayne State University Professor Tom Pedroni analyzed the scores and found that the majority of students made no progress or declined (Pedroni, 2014). Covington’s
statement, unlike Pedroni’s, did not provide detailed information on the procedures used to generate conclusions regarding test score trends.”

It covers the EAA’s approach to the clamoring for “accountability” by Snyder and his cronies:

“In an era when ‘accountability’ has become a dominant consideration for the evaluation of education policies, the EAA has charted a distinctive course. The accountability provisions of Michigan’s EAA policy are underdeveloped and rest very narrowly on the governor’s actions.”

And it ends with some excellent suggestions:

For funding:

“Michigan has tried to do school turnaround on the cheap, hoping
that it could be accomplished with negligible new public resources while merely reconfiguring school governance and management….It is also important to recognize that Michigan’s overall school funding system fails to adequately account for the additional costs associated with student poverty and special education status in the delivery of needed educational services. Michigan’s lowest performing schools have disproportionate concentrations of high-cost students. Future efforts to turn them around

should address this disadvantage by changing school finance policy so that the state revenues that districts and schools receive more closely match the local costs they confront.”

Technical expertise:

“If Michigan’s turnaround strategies are to have any hope of success, they must draw more deliberately on existing research-based knowledge and technical expertise in teaching and learning.”

And, importantly, trust:

“Research indicates that trust is strengthened when parties have ongoing relationships in which their interactions demonstrate benevolence, support, and concern. Trust is also promoted when the behavior of those in authority positions is characterized by open communication, transparency, consistency, integrity, and a willingness to share control. The importance of trust for the turnaround of schools designated as ‘failing’ can scarcely
be overstated. When teachers and administrators feel threatened, or held accountable for problems beyond their control, it erodes trust and ultimately impedes change. The changes may include cutting jobs, altering the way administrators share power, and adopting new teaching
materials and practices. Establishing trust among students, parents, families and surrounding local communities is also important. Unless care is taken, state turnaround interventions can easily create contentious and distrustful school and community environments that weaken the foundations for sustained improvement.”

Please read the whole report!

(Again, you can find it here:

For more background:

On education reform in New Orleans:

Accumulation by Dispossession

The Best Article Ever About New Orleans’ Charter Schools

On the EAA:

Getting the Role of the Teacher Right

Eclectablog’s EAA

Connecting race and “failing schools”:

The Racist Narrative of Failing Schools

Overview of corporate reform represented by Snyder’s approach:

Education Corporate Reform 101: What Parents Need to Know

On my up close experience with disruptive innovation in Michigan:

Disrupting Innovation

Fifty Years Later. In Detroit the End of Brown: Separate and Unequal

This  guest post, written by Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellerman, was originally printed in On the Edge, the Detroit Catholic Worker paper. ( It offers a history of the loosening of Detroit Public Schools from democratically elected, publicly accountable local control.  Please read it while keeping two things in mind:  1.  Martin Luther King’s dictum, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” 2. Wherever you are, this extraction of education from what we now refer to as “public” and for the common good is on its way to you.

The Detroit Public Schools are being dismantled by design and effectively looted. Though Detroiters and the elected school board are consistently blamed for their demise, for twelve of the last fifteen years DPS has been under state control.

Mother Helen Moore, an attorney who heads the Education Task Force has become notorious for her fight on behalf of the schools, and tells the story over and over in community meetings. It’s well documented.

When the Detroit schools were first taken over in 1999, enrollment was stable (at 200,000 students), test scores were middle range compared to state averages and rising, an “Afro-centric” curriculum developed by the district over a number of years was in use, there was a $93 million budget surplus, and $1.2 billion from a bond issue intended by residents for building improvements. It was the latter, not any financial emergency, which drew the takeover. Then Governor Engler was determined that those improvement dollars not go to local minority contractors, but to suburban and outstate builders. Follow the money.

When control was returned to the board seven years later, the fund deficit was $200 million, enrollment had dropped to 118,000, the curriculum was gone, as was the bond money spent at shamefully inflated prices. One hundred million simply disappeared without audit or indictment. This is the background of emergency management in Detroit.

The elected board was returned to power in early 2006 with the burden of a deficit budget under which they labored for three years, including the 2008 economic collapse caused by the financial industry. The first Emergency Financial Manager, Robert Bob (not an educator but a developer famous for brokering deals, and supported by Eli Broad if you know what that means), was put in place on the premise of a $135 million budget deficit. When he left the deficit had ballooned to $327 million and test scores had plummeted to among the worst in the nation. He was paid an annual salary of half a million dollars. Get the drift?

Disaster Capitalism and Public Education

We are at a point in late capitalism where corporations are turning inward to devour other corporations (hostile takeovers), municipalities (as in the Detroit bankruptcy) and basic social institutions (like education – public education in particular).

Globally, the architects of structural adjustment (austerity budgets, deregulation, selling off public assets, and privatization) had discovered that natural disasters afforded the best opportunities for quick takeover. With respect to education, the Katrina flooding is the example of opportunity provided – where New Orleans public education was effectively replaced by a profitable charter system. But they also discovered that disasters could be manufactured as well. We’ve experienced this in Detroit both as a city and as a school system. Defund. Make it fail or appear so. Take it over.

The Other Emergency Management in Detroit

Because of the bankruptcy recently completed, emergency management as a form of urban fascism is better known at the municipal level in Detroit. However, the Public Schools have been under emergency management now for five years. The destruction and dismantling of that system is what now bodes for the city as a whole.

Though Public Act 436, which allegedly authorizes emergency management, allows that elected bodies taken over and supplanted may vote after 18 months to put out an EM, the courts have ruled that this means the Governor simply has to install a new and different EM. Emergency Management is a permanent feature of black cities in Michigan.

The elected and unpaid school board, though constantly tarred in the media with corruption or incompetence or simply ignored, has continued to function “in exile” as a body conscientiously accountable to parents, students, and citizens, consistently resisting takeover. (Would that our city council had an ounce of such vision or fiber!) Believe it or not, the State Attorney General sued the district representatives on the board for being elected. Since they were duly seated and sworn in, the maneuver failed. Now a foundation-funded and nonprofit-orchestrated campaign seeks oust them altogether for a structure of “mayoral control.”

Emergency management has been the blunt instrument of privatization. More than half the schools in Detroit are charters. Though originally conceived as vehicles for creativity, charters have become a mainstay for union busting and privatization. In the industrial era schools prepared students for work in factory jobs, largely auto in Detroit. Now students are treated as state-funded commodities for extracting profits. The distinction between non-profit and for-profit charters is all but moot as even most of the former are managed by for-profit contractors. These schools compete with public schools, but have some choice in who they accept and who they don’t; and they are not held to the same standards of accountability as public schools for teacher certification or even testing.

In Detroit, headlines recently lamented that DPS had missed the deadline for federal funding of Headstart programs in the public schools. “Bungling black incompetence” is how that was read again in the suburbs – a loss of $4 million. But it was, of course, the Governor’s EM who missed the deadline. And not by accident: low and behold federal grants now fund Headstart as a privately contracted program in public school spaces.

Though parents were promised that more resources would be driven to the classroom, under Emergency Management administrative costs, actual and percentage wise, have nearly doubled: from $75 per pupil in 2008 to $143 per student today. Classroom size has taken a similar hit. Next year’s budget has proposed the target of 38 students per classroom be expanded to 43. With conflicts from such over-crowding, suspensions and expulsions go up; big contracts for restorative justice programs are justified. When a school board member pointed out that there weren’t enough chairs in a classroom for that higher number, an administrator replied, “With the absenteeism rate that wouldn’t be a problem.”

Special schools, even fully funded ones, have simply closed: Oakman Orthopedic (a facility gorgeously built for disabled students – see Kate Levy’s film, Because They Could: the Fight for Oakman School ) and The Day School for the Deaf (similarly equipped) are gone. Such buildings are abandoned or turned over wholesale to profiteers. Catherine Ferguson Academy, a school for pregnant teens and young mothers which had an international reputation for integrated urban agriculture was handed over to a for- profit charter which simply gutted the program. (For a nostalgic look at the school see the film Grown in Detroit. It too will break your heart). The building is now home to a Headstart program run by the sprawling nonprofit, Southwest Solutions.

According to the Detroit Free Press, the second EM, Roy Roberts (also not an educator, but a retired auto exec), said he was told when he came that his job was to “blow up the Detroit Public Schools and dismantle it.” So far so true.

Racial and Spatial Restructuring

Detroit is being downsized and restructured geographically, as well as financially. The plug is being pulled on certain neighborhoods where poor black folks live. Predatory mortgages, now foreclosed, drive them out. Infrastructure is allowed to fail. Lights go out, fire stations close, cops withdraw. Water is shut off pushing people out; and water bills are attached to tax indebtedness, forcing another round of foreclosures. And yes, schools close in neighborhoods slated to have no living future.

Resources, meanwhile, are going into other neighborhoods close to downtown, along the waterfront, or connected to the pending light rail. There are neighborhoods where young corporate-type white people are moving exuberantly in. It’s their generation’s turn! These are people generally without children – who don’t yet care about schools. Their indifference rules the day and the space.

The Educational Achievement (“Apartheid”) Authority

“Authorities” are another mechanism for eviscerating, circumventing, and privatizing government. We have many of these para-governmental authorities in the city: the Downtown Development Authority controls funding and land, the Lighting Authority replaces the Lighting Department, The Great Lakes Water Authority essentially takes over the Detroit Water and Sewage Department and will likely hire Evolia, an international water corporation to manage things. For two years we have not had a Health Department, but instead an Institute for Population Health. In like manner the EAA is not even properly an authority, but an inter-local agreement between Eastern Michigan University (where the Governor appoints the university regents) and the Detroit Public Schools (where the Governor appoints the Emergency Manager). Think of it as an agreement between the Governor and the Governor. And call it an authority, a “principality” if you will.

The EAA is supposed to be a state-wide school district for failing schools, but all of the schools are in Detroit.  The idea was to take those in the lowest performing bottom 5% and turn them around. Two interesting coincidences: 1) almost all the students in failing school district are black and 2) when it came time to transfer the schools from Detroit to the EAA, the criterion seemed to be more a matter of which buildings had been newly renovated. One of the high schools transferred, Mumford, had been virtually rebuilt for $50.5 million. The building went to the EAA, but the reconstruction debt stayed with the DPS and comes out of the per student cost. Can you see how for DPS, those per pupil debt service costs went from $212 in 2008 to $1109 per pupil today?  Not having the debt service in the EAA means there is more money per pupil for the private contractors.

Forgive all the numbers, but just a few more. The Chancellor of the EAA makes $325,000 per year (actually her total package approaches nearly half a million). She is new. The previous Chancellor made the same amount, but he was forced to resign under a scandal of corruption, but with a big severance package.

Cyber Curricula

In the era of the Gates Foundation and such, much of the sales and contractual profits to be made in education are technological: hard and soft. EAA students, almost entirely poor and black, have been test subjects for a new computer teaching program called Buzz. It came from Kansas City along with John Covington, first Chancellor of the EAA. At a cost to the district of some $350,000, it is marketed as providing students with an individualized learning experience. (For this and what follows see Curt Gayette, “The EAA Exposed,” Detroit MetroTimes)

Textbooks left behind in the schools taken over by the EAA were simply thrown in the dumpster. Teachers in such EAA classroom are no longer teachers– they are facilitators only allowed to help students in using the program before them. One teacher, Brooke Harris at Mumford, was disciplined (she was eventually fired) for attempting to bring books and textbook related materials into the classroom. “I was told that in the student-centered model, my role as teacher was primarily to supervise students to make sure they were using Buzz.”

Speaking out as an EAA teacher is courageous and costly. In the EAA, no union provides protection from retaliation. They tend more often to speak circumspectly, as in these pages, or anonymously and off the record.

Individualized instruction can sound great, but exclusive use of the computer screen is an assault on community-based learning. No give and take in group discussion with a teacher.

On its website and in its ads, the EAA touts fantastic progress in bringing a greater percentage of students to proficiency levels in reading and math. And Covington was regularly on the road speaking at conferences to promote and market “the product.”

Some of the evidence of shining performance was based on a test internally administered by the EAA. Teachers interviewed by the ACLU reported such pressure to produce positive test results that standard practice included allowing students to re-take the test if they didn’t do well the first time. Moreover, on the premise of individualized instruction and not wanting to “teach to the test,” the EAA attempted to avoid its students even taking the state MEAP tests – even though it was MEAP scores which were used to justify its creation. Teaching to the test is, of course, a bad idea, but you can’t have it both ways.

A close reading of MEAP test data released in February, however, shows that the majority of EAA students failed to demonstrate even marginal progress toward proficiency. Consider: 78% of students demonstrated no progress toward proficiency or even actual declines in math. The same was true for 58% of students in reading. Students who entered the system proficient had even grimmer results – the majority lost ground. (See Dr. Thomas Pedroni, Detroit News, April 21, 2014) This, even though EAA students are held for longer days and year round.

The Buzz program, to be sure, was still being built and improved while it was tested on Detroit students. On a stipend basis, additional curriculum content was added by a team of eight teachers. Half of them were recent college graduates who had not studied to become teachers, had no certification or curriculum design experience, but had been given five weeks of training in the summer before coming to Detroit. They were part of the Teach for America program.

Teach for America

When it opened for business, more than a quarter of the EAA’s faculty were Teach for America students. TFA is a controversial non-profit designed to get new university graduates teaching in low-income urban and rural communities. Participants are encouraged in their college coursework to take education classes and pursue certification, though that is not required and most have not. For those not certified there is the intensive five weeks of training, plus structures of ongoing support, and simultaneous education courses. Military veterans are actively recruited. Participants make a two year commitment. They come into to any given school or district at the entry base salary, but combined with the AmeriCorps program, they receive federal loan forgiveness and vouchers toward further education. If there is a union they are not forbidden to join.

What’s the problem? There is a narrative in circulation that bad teachers protected by unions and tenure are the problem. Though originally intended to fill teacher shortages in urban areas, the TFA program actually functions to replace veteran teachers. All teachers in EAA schools were terminated and required to reapply for their positions. More than a quarter of those were filled by TFA instructors fresh out of school. Do the math. There are no unions in EAA schools. The fact that studies are conducted comparing learning at the hands of veteran teachers vs. short-term recruits, suggests that replacement is part of the design. The for-profit charters are also full of TFA instructors, as are the public schools. With more of all to come.

Though TFA can be a short cut into an ongoing teaching career, the 2 year commitment, especially for those seeking loan forgiveness, graduate school funds, and resume experience, means recruits are not committed to a city, a school, or even a teaching vocation. The resignation rate in EAA schools has been extraordinarily high. Add TFA and you have a faculty in perpetual turnover.

African Americans comprise 13% of the TFA workforce. If those number hold in Detroit, it means students in a city that is 80% African American and in a failing school district which is virtually all black, are faced with teachers not from their culture, experience, or community. In a city where the young white savior narrative is already running strong, this is yet another version.

Late Breaking: Mayoral Control and New Orleans Complete?

As this issue goes to press there are moves in the lame duck Republican legislature to abolish the elected school board and put the public schools under direct mayoral control. The current mayor lived his entire life in a northern suburb, literally the whitest city in America. He was “elected” in a corporately-funded write-in campaign, winning by a landslide. He was the treasurer of the EAA when an unaccounted “loan” of $12 million was given it from DPS, but claims to be in the dark – to know nothing about it. A decade ago in a ballot measure Detroiters refused to give up the elected board to mayoral control. And more recently the City Council refused to put it again on the ballot. But like Emergency Management, it may simply be imposed. The difference between such a regime and emergency management is not worth talking about – simply more of the same. It’s expected that this will pave the way for the entire system to be chartered and union representation ended altogether, bringing the New Orleans-style disaster to completion.

A Dark Time

Though many are celebrating the bankruptcy, its structural adjustment, the give-aways of land and buildings and assets, the development dollars flowing, and the lucrative contracts to be had…this is a dark time for Detroit’s children, poor and black. They are being push down, pushed out, and pipelined toward prison. Sometimes I near despair. Still. There is hope in students who refuse to be so pushed and fight for their own education. There is hope in teachers who love Detroit’s young and give themselves for them. There is hope in those who hold the line and struggle on their behalf, in going on record with a history of resistance. There’s even hope in naming the darkness…and trusting the universe to bend toward light.

Getting the Role of the Teacher Right

Getting the role of the teacher right is really, really important.  

And getting it wrong leads to all kinds of problems.

One way our education reform movement (and, to be honest, just about everyone else) gets it wrong is imagining teachers’ function to be simply “delivering content.”

This leads to problems in the classroom.  Students are treated as passive recipients of content that is then superficially assessed via tests.  The students themselves, their lives, the contexts they live in, their aspirations, are not important.  What becomes important is the technical question of how to best “deliver content,” and then how to measure our effectiveness in doing so.  What matters is content delivery and assessment.  This is what I and others label “learnification.”

It is simply bad pedagogy.

Am I overstating this?  Read your newspapers, check your local district’s ranking, and get back to me.

In this bad pedagogy, in our current world where technology offers the availability of content “anywhere, anytime at any pace,” the logic says that the teacher is no longer necessary. If delivering content is the task, and if content is always available, the role of the teacher, at best, is greatly diminished.

At its logical trajectory, the teacher is an expensive and unnecessary luxury.

Which leads to bad policy.

One local case in point is Michigan is the Educational Achievement Authority, a fairly recent development that has taken over the bottom 5 % of schools as measured by achievement tests, and has been determined to improve them.

On every level the EAA is a colossal failure.

Its fundamental failure is that it imagines learning as simply the delivery of content.

Which allows the teacher to be replaced by a computer program.

Curt Guyette, an investigative reporter (isn’t it nice to see the word “investigative” in front of the word “reporter”? How refreshing!) for the Metro Times does a great job of pulling back the curtains on the EAA.

In the EAA, the professionalism of teachers making decisions with students has been replaced by a computer program, “Buzz”- an excellent example of learnification.

“Created by a Utah-based company called Agilix Labs, Buzz is education software that provides what its marketing material describes as an individualized learning experience. With the help of $100,000 from the EAA, Buzz was merged with other educational software created by the School Improvement Network [SINET], also based in Utah. Another $250,000 from the EAA would eventually pay for improvements suggested by the teachers, students, and administrators who were using it,…” 

And how did it work?

“… in reality, what internal EAA documents reveal is the extent to which teachers and students were, over the course of two school years, used as whetstones to hone a badly flawed product being pitched as cutting-edge technology.”

The article goes on to show the role of inexperienced Teach for America teachers implementing and helping to design the program, and many, many other problems.  (The whole article is well worth your time.  You find it here.)

And what allowed for this?

Getting the role of the teacher wrong.

If the role of the teacher is to deliver content in a world where content is always available, does teacher experience matter?

No. Send in Teach for America.

If the role of the teachers is to deliver content in a world where content is available any place, does the community that the students exist in matter?

No. Takeover the local, democratically accountable schools and replace with a state wide system run by the governor accountable to no one within the now irrelevant local community.

Do teachers matter?

No. Replace them with a computer program.

You get my point.

So then, what is the role of the teacher?

I love the video below because it succinctly shows why teachers matter. It also puts technology and its function in education in proper relationship.

The speaker gets to a point in the video where he announces, “What limits learning is what happens inside the student’s head.”

Think about that.  The student all of a sudden matters.  It’s no longer about delivering content.  The teacher’s role is to correctly imagine what is happening inside a student’s head.  In each student’s head.

A computer can’t do that- only a human can.

And he wraps up by getting the role of the teacher right.

“Well, if you think that the fundamental job of a teacher is to transmit information from their head to the their students, then you are right, they are obsolete…”


The fundamental role of a teacher is not to deliver information, it is to guide the social process of learning. ..The job of a teacher is to inspire, to challenge, to excite their students to want to learn.  The most important thing a teacher does is make every student feel like they are important,to make them feel accountable for doing the work of learning.?”

Computers can’t do that.

It gets the role of the teacher right.

Please watch the whole video here:

The Good Man Project: To End the Brutality Against People of Color, White People Need to Start Listening

The Good Man Project: To End the Brutality Against People of Color, White People Need to Start Listening

What Isn’t Being Talked About

It’s true.  I listen to too much talk radio.  And then I get upset.  Particularly when sports talk radio (my indulgence of choice) hosts talk about things other than sports.

Things like the decision to not indict the police in the the Eric Garner case.

Or in the Michael Brown case.

The fact that I listen is on me.

But I rationalize it because this gives me a window into the thinking of a specific but prevalent section our population, albeit mostly male.

And recently I have heard a lot of conversations about particular aspects of particular cases.  Any overarching patterns tend to dissipate (dare I say, defensively dissipate) into minute and concrete points of righteousness.  Conversations where sentences like following are heard from callers and hosts:

“But what are the cops supposed to do with a 400 pound man resisting arrest?”

“But didn’t Michael Brown charge?”

“These are people who had already broken the law.”

You get it.

And who am I to say?  I wasn’t there.  I can’t pretend to know what was going on in specific people’s minds during these incidents.  (Though, to be completely honest, I have some guesses.)

What isn’t being said is anything about the broader pattern that these particulars occur within.

Things like:

The fact that between 2006 and 2012, a white police officer killed a black person at least twice a week in this country.

Since Travyon Martin’s death on February 26, 2012, (remember, Travyon was shot- and then demonized– attempting to walk through a neighborhood after buying Skittles) and March 27, 2102, 29 black people were killed by security/police.

Most recently, Tamir Rice, a twelve year old boy, was shot by police while holding a pellet gun.  (See this.)

More black men are incarcerated in the U.S. as of 2010 than were held in slavery in 1850.

In schools, African-American boys are suspended at a 20% rate compared to a 6% suspension rate for white males, even though, “…according to the Office of Civil Rights, research shows suspension disparities don’t seem to be caused by more frequent misbehavior among students of color, leading to concerns of discrimination.”

How about this, from Colorlines?

“…white men of all classes reported far more troubled behavior than anyone else in the study, but black men suffered uniquely harsh, lasting punishment for their mistakes. Among men who’d dropped out of school, for instance, 84 percent of whites were employed full time at age 22. For black men, however, only 40 percent were employed at that age. And while black and white men from low-income families had similarly high rates of criminal convictions, those convictions mattered far more to the lives of the black men. At age 28, 54 percent of white men with a record were employed full time making an average of $20 an hour; among black men with records, 33 percent were employed, making just over $10 an hour, or half that of their white peers.” (Emphasis added)

I could go on and on.

It makes me wonder:  Is clinging to these specific, concrete points of righteousness a way to avoid the important patterns that connect?

I suggest then, that what is important is not only the particulars of the case of Eric Garner, of the case of Travyon Martin, of the case of Michael Brown, of the case of Tamir Rice, of the case of Renisha McBride, of…..(how long?), but the overall systemic patterns which are not being talked about.

We need, for instance, to not only debate the protests related to each of these cases, and the violence of a few of the protesters, but the underlying systemic causes that lead to the mass protests in the first place.

We need to address the idea that the violence of the oppressed (yes- I said it- even in America- oppressed)  is the language of those whose words aren’t heard.  And that peace requires the listening of those in power.

We need to address the larger pattern of race in America; of how we view race, of how race is avoided and hidden as a factor in virtually all aspects of our lives.  Of how this pattern reflects a system, yes- still, of white supremacy.  Of how, as Ta-Nehesi Coates argues, white supremacy remains “one of the central organizing forces in American Life.”

In this important essay, Coates continues. “There is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself.” (emphasis added)

This is what isn’t being talked about.

Which can make it hard to breathe.