Tag Archives: EAA

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 http://education.msu.edu/epc/library/papers/documents/WP43MichigansEducationAchievementAuthority.pdf)

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: http://education.msu.edu/epc/library/papers/documents/WP43MichigansEducationAchievementAuthority.pdf)

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

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:

Can We Be Honest? Probably Not

If we were really honest with ourselves, and we’re not, we would be forced to come to the conclusion that the so-called “achievement gap” isn’t going anywhere soon.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not giving up.  I will continue to work, educate, learn and do all I can to make this gap go away.

It’s just that I continue to despair at the degree of denial we are operating within.

Let me explain directly.

The “achievement gap” is a frame created and maintained by white dominant culture.  This frame functions to externalize the problem.  The lack of “achievement”  within this frame, is a problem with minorities who are affected by it, and all efforts are therefore directed to changing minorities, those who own the problem.  (See here for more of my concerns with the language of “achievement”.)

See how nifty that works?  The problem is “those” people.

In addition to externalizing the blame, the frame of the achievement gap also  individualizes the blame.  If we just change “those people” we can solve the problem.  This logic of this as a “people problem,” leads to the tired, failed rhetoric such as “the number one factor in student performance is the quality of the teacher.”  Even though, as scholar Elias Isquith says, “… pretty much all honest education reformers now acknowledge, teachers are not the number one impact on whether a child escapes poverty. The number one impact is family [and] the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood.”  

Again, don’t get me wrong, the frame has done some good.  The data it provides is so incontrovertible that we are no longer able to deny that there is a problem.

It’s just that language of “achievement gap” obscures what the problem is.  It’s not a people problem.

The problem is that we have an equity gap.  Our white dominant, competitive culture that is oriented around “achievement” simply works in ways that privileges some at the expense of others. And, if we were honest, we would recognize that you can’t talk about equity without including race. Yes, poverty is a huge problem.  But all too often speaking about poverty becomes an excuse for not talking about race.  And race and poverty are all too often tied up with each other.

By way of quick example, my state of Michigan has created the Education Achievement Authority as a state run district to “turn around” the state’s lowest performing schools.  It’s a technical solution to this people problem of underachievement.  Addressing the achievement gap was the excuse for doing so.  It is no coincidence that those 15 schools taken over by the EAA fall within the boundaries of Detroit, a city that is over 80% black with a poverty rate of close to 40%.  As the Metro Times has recently revealed, those children captured by the EAA have been treated as subjects in a poorly run experiment.  This is not education, it is child abuse, but these are children who are invisible, and therefore subject to experimentation that maintains the invisibility of its abuse.

Detroit is separated from Oakland County by one road.  Oakland County is among the 10 wealthiest counties in the United States with a population of over a million.  Its population is close to 80% white.  None of its public schools has been taken over by the EAA.

One road.

So, this might lead to some questions. But that will make us uncomfortable.

I’ll ask anyway.

How can two areas that are so different in make-up, in wealth, in race, in privilege, be separated by one road?  How can one be so white and so rich, and the other be so black and so poor?

Senator Paul Ryan and others would say this is a cultural problem.  That there is a “culture of poverty” that perpetuates this division.  His frame thus insinuates that the problem is with minorities.

He’s wrong.

It’s an equity problem, and you can’t address equity in this country without addressing the historical context of race.  As Paul Thomas writes, “…race is a marker in the U.S. for access to equity and the coincidences of poverty and privilege. …If we were to begin to build the U.S.—in both policy and public behavior—around goals of equity for all, then segregation would either be eliminated or reduced to a dynamic that is no longer a marker of injustice…

You simply can’t address equity without addressing the dominant culture of whiteness.

But this is something that the evidence says we just aren’t ready to be honest about.


Sacrificing Our Children

Can we finally move beyond the illusion that the privatization of public schools is for the benefit of kids?

Much empirical evidence says we should.

Can we finally be honest about that fact that for profit charters simply move money from that which is set aside for the common good to corporate profits at the expense of children, particularly those in poverty and of color?

A new study, Do Poor Kids Deserve Lower-Quality Schools Than Rich Kids? Evaluating School Privatization Proposals in Milwaukee, Wisconsin,  by Gordon Lafer, says yes.

Ruth Conniff, in her article, Scathing Report Finds Rocketship, School Privatization Hurt Poor Kids, shows how this study excavates the way in which the Milwaukee school system, “ground zero for school privatization,” uses children as fodder for corporate profits.

“Lafer’s research…is a sweeping indictment of the growing private charter school industry–and other schemes backed by rightwing groups and big business–that siphon public funds out of public schools and enrich corporate investors at the expense of quality education for poor children.”

Let’s be clear- despite what you hear from the right, from Michelle Rhee, Jeb Bush, and Bill Gates, etc., despite their lofty rhetoric of offering choices for poor families, despite their stated intentions of helping lift families out of poverty, the fact of the matter is that the corporate education reform movement functions to insure that the educational quality experienced by poor children is harmed when school privatization occurs, and corporate profit is greatly increased.

From Conniff’s article:

“Because of its extraordinarily high teacher turnover (the chain relies heavily on Teach for America volunteers), its large classes, and reductive curriculum, Rocketship [one of the for profit charter chains used in Milwaukee] subjects kids most in need of consistent, nurturing, adult attention to low quality instruction and neglect.

That model, which is also on display in Milwaukee’s low-performing voucher schools, is demonstrably harmful to kids. But it has generated big profits for wealthy investors.

From 2010 to 2013, Rocketship increased its assets from $2.2 million to $15.8 million…” (emphasis added)

Got it?

Students become objectified as workers for the purpose of increasing profit at the expense of the welfare of these children. Tax dollars, ostensibly spent for the public good, become corporate profit at the expense of our children. 

We are sacrificing our children to the god of profit.

“It appears the question [Rocketship] aims to answer is not simply, ‘How can we do better by poor kids’? but rather, ‘How can we educate poor kids while generating a 15  percent rate of return for investors.?’ ” 

But, as Conniff notes, it doesn’t stop there.  The report goes on to connect how the illusion of failing schools is used to increase privatization, and thus corporate profits.

“Worse, in pushing these efforts, politicians, rightwing think tanks, chambers of commerce, and, most of all, the American Legislative Exchange Council are actually creating the very problem of failure in the school system they claim their privatization plans will help address.

A recent proposal in the Wisconsin legislature, expected to come up again next session, would mandate that 5 percent of all of the state’s public schools receive ‘failing’ grades, which lead to closure after the third ‘F.’ Schools deemed ‘failing ‘would be replaced by charter schools such as Rocketship.” (emphasis added)

By creating a system that has 5% of schools mandated as “failures” as determined by the abstraction of standardized test score results, a pool of schools that legally must be privatized, and thus ripened for profit, has been created.


This is already happening in Michigan, where over 80% of the charter schools are for profit, under our state’s  Educational Achievement Authority.  And despite a horrific track record, there is a daily push by Michigan’s GOP legislature to expand the EAA to a minimum of 50 schools.

Again, to be clear, the evidence shows that this push is not about children.

It is about profit.

“‘The idea that what chamber of commerce lobbyists lie awake at night thinking about is what will help poor kids…I mean, we’re adults, right?’ Lafer commented by phone.”

Let’s hope so.

Please read Conniff’s article and Lafer’s report.

The Racist Narrative of ‘Failing Schools’

We hear it all of the time- we need to find ways to support ‘failing schools.’  And yet, there is little questioning of the assumptions underlying this phrase. Still, because of the uncritical acceptance of the existence of failing schools, lots of people are hard at work determining ways to support (i.e, in today’s Orwellian twist of language, ‘destroy’) them.

Let’s look at how this plays out in my home state of Michigan.

In  2011, it was determined by Republican Governor Rick Snyder that the lowest performing 5% of schools were to be taken out of the control of their local districts and put into a new, state-wide district called the Educational Achievement Authority.

How was “lowest performing” determined?  By state-wide MEAP test score results.

What do we know about test scores?  That the best predictor of success is socio-economic status.

It is well known that what test scores indicate is not ability, but class status and geography. So what are these test scores really measuring?  By and large they are measuring the health of the communities the schools serve, not the schools themselves.  ‘Failing schools’ do not exist.  What do exist are communities that we have failed.

So it is no surprise that the schools taken from local control were schools of high poverty with high concentrations of people of color.  The EAA “enrolled” (to more accurately reveal the Orwellian twist, ‘absconded with’) 15 schools from the 95 % black Detroit Public School System.

And why is this racist?

Let me start by saying what I do not mean.  I am not suggesting that Snyder or others are consciously making decisions based on race.  I am not calling Snyder a racist. I don’t pretend to know his intentions.

However, I do know how the behavior of those who use the language of ‘failing schools’ functions. I am saying that the combination of unconscious bias and the workings of a system that benefits some at the expense of others works together in the language of  ‘failing schools’  to function as institutionalized racism.

Let me connect some dots.

John a. powell, in his book  Racing to Justice, writes of what he calls ‘racialized space’:

“In the current era of defacto segregation and discrimination, white domination survives without explicit racial discrimination.  Blacks’ inferior social, economic, and political status is instead justified by a supposed ‘culture of poverty,’ and contained with what John Calmore calls ‘racialized space.’  Under this rubric, non-white individuals congregate at the bottom of the social ladder not because of group-based discrimination or structural racism, but because each individual has internalized cultural tenets that conflict with the societal norms of hard work and lawfulness- values that enable other individuals to succeed.  As Calmore points out, this explanation appeals to conservatives because it adopts and fosters their emphasis on individual autonomy.  This focus also absolves those who have ‘succeed’ in society of responsibility for those who have ‘failed’ by severing any causal connection between successful whites and unsuccessful blacks- or indeed anyone less successful.” (pg. 58)

The narrative of  ‘failing schools’ obscures any connection between individual failing (and the schools that are made up of individual ‘failures’) and the broader societal connections of segregation underlied by a culture of white privilege.  It works under the assumption that the fault lies with the individuals living in a culture of poverty- their choices create their poverty, rather than a racialized history that implicates all of those who continue to uphold white privilege.  And it answers such supposed failure by doubling down on addressing this ‘culture of poverty’ with language of so-called support, which in fact functions to dispossess those of color of their own agency and to further profit those of privilege.  (This is not a place to address the effectiveness of the EAA, but suffice to say that, except for those profiting off of the privatization that the EAA has allowed for, it is a colossal failure.  See the excellent work of Eclectablog and Tom Pedroni for more on this.)

What the narrative of failing schools does most is allows us to continue to avoid meaningfully addressing race and poverty.  It obscures the fact that a history of policies supporting white privilege has created pockets of race and poverty that are untenable in a moral society, and it does so by blaming the victims of such policy.

Powell continues, “Today, of course, instead of referring to minorities as inherently inferior, we define the undeserving poor (or ‘the underclass’) by characteristics that are race-neutral in theory, but heavily raciliazed in practice and effect. John Calmore notes that the traits that separate the deserving from the undeserving are heavily racialized in popular discourse:  criminal proportionality, welfare dependency, employment status, and so on.” (pg. 59

‘Black and poor’ becomes a code for ‘undeserving.’  And if you are undeserving, you clearly don’t know what’s best.  So, because they are ‘undeserving,’ it’s easy to subject students in the EAA  to what Snyder has called a “worthy experiment” (quoted in the headline of a Detroit News article that has since been changed).  It’s easy for undeserving students in this experiment to be directed by questionable on-line practices overseen by Teach for America teachers with little training and less than two years of experience.  I doubt Snyder would allow this for his own privately schooled own children. (Again, see Eclectablog‘s telling work on these EAA experimentations.)

What is this really about?

Yes, it’s about a way to continue with the privatization of the public.  It’s about undermining unions and teachers’ right to a democratic work place.  It’s about the ignorant arrogance of wealth and privilege.

But I think Tom Pedroni exposes the root of what it is about, and what allows for all of the above, in his article, The White Man’s Burden, Colonialism and the EAA , when he suggests that it’s one more symptom of the war on blackness.

“The EAA is specifically designed to move education for youth of color out of the hands of communities of color.  It is a rollback of the gains of the civil rights movement, and parallels the imposition of boarding schools on the indigenous in this continent.  Its underlying assumptions, purpose, and mode of operation is essentially the same. Like the boarding schools, it uses looted land and treasure to accomplish its ends…

They honestly believe that if they can just relieve Blacks of the control of their communities, it will all get better, because they just love Detroit’s children so much more than Detroit’s families do.  With all of these reforms, whether it’s governance of the city or governance of the schools, the underlying belief is that schools and communities of families of color can succeed if only adults of color don’t control them.  You can look at what they are bringing and see that at each level.  And we need to pay attention to this. Most of us already are.  Their belief is that the core of the problem is African American control of African American childrearing.  That there is something in African American culture that is bringing ruin everywhere. That’s what they believe, whether they are completely honest about it to themselves, or conscious of it themselves or not.  We can tell by their actions—what they do reveals much about their core beliefs.  They believe that the essential problem in our cities is Black culture, and that they can save Black youth by separating them as much as possible from Black governance, Black educators, and Black families.  Black governance, by not allowing those that the people of Detroit elect to govern the city and schools to actually govern.  Democracy is okay for White people, they believe, but Black people just can’t handle that. ..

Because behind all this, they see Black culture as pathological.  They see that as what needs to be broken… Black culture… the very thing that helped African Americans to survive 400 years of slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, everything. The thing that is celebrated as the impetus of democratizing movements all over the world—people in China invoking MLK when they fight for their freedom– that’s the problem– Black culture and how you separate Black students from Black culture.  How do you move the control of Black children as much as possible out of the control of Black adults?  Well, you disband the school board, and you put the Governor or the State Superintendent of Public Instruction in charge.  And you take the teaching force of 15 Detroit Public Schools, fire all the teachers, and replace veteran African American teachers, male and female, with mostly female young White women.” (emphasis added)

We need to call it what it is- the narrative of ‘failing schools’ is racist.