The Power of Truth (from a Concerned Parent in Windham)

“In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” George Orwell 1984

This blog, like others that have been sent in from parents, shines the light of truth on the corporate education reform industry.

Read it and know that the time has come to either fight back or give up.  Silence is not an option.

From a Concerned Parent in Windham, Connecticut:

 “When I use a word,” said Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, “it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.” Humpty Dumpty must have been the Senior Marketing Consultant to those who are tasked with selling corporate education reform to the American public. Their taskmasters are undemocratic plutocrats like Bill gates and Eli Broad. The plutocrats are using their vast wealth to transform the public school system in accordance with their own political values and ideological vision. Marketing and public relations are so often about deliberate deception; and the marketing of “education reform” is no exception to this general rule. As used by the corporate propagandists, words like “reform,” “education,” and “opportunity” have taken on new, sinister meanings. “Reform” was once a concept that meant to amend, to change to better from worse–it was typically associated with progressive or liberal politics. The two great educational reforms of American history were the establishment of common schooling and the efforts to undo racial segregation of schoolchildren. Today, reform in education is almost exclusively a matter of privatizing schools and educational services. The root meaning of the word “education” is to lead out potential, to nurture native abilities. This once meant a focus on “child-based” pedagogy. Today, education means standardized testing, drilling and data collection and analysis. These are managerial, rather than student, concerns. “Opportunity” was once about social justice and racial equality; today it means “individual choice” in an “educational marketplace” based squarely in competition. When Humpty Dumpty, and his cohort in educational reform, get to redefine the meaning of words this is no simple linguistic matter; controlling words is an exercise in power, and when the powerful control the meanings, they tend to get control of other areas of social life–such as political power and economic resources.

When Alice goes down the rabbit hole with no inkling of “how in the world she was to get out again,” we are made to understand that she has entered a realm where the normal rules of language, reason and meaning no longer apply. As Alice says to herself: “what nonsense I am talking.” Nonsense–the absurd, the ludicrous, and the ridiculous–is the native language of Wonderland, and Alice gets caught up in it, despite her efforts to hold onto common sense. In the current universe of corporate education reform, where absurdity is passed off as a sound logic, many teachers, students and parents must feel like Alice: they see that nonsense has become normative, and that in order to get around in the new educational system, you have to speak a jargon devoid of rational meaning. In the Wonderland of privatized schools and data driven educational assessments, up is down and black is white.

Consider the Path Academy, a so-called “recuperative high school” that is due to open in Windham in August 2014. Path Academy is a charter school managed by Our Piece of the Pie (OPP), a youth development agency, “with the mission of helping urban youth become economically independent adults.” Path will primarily serve over-age, under-credited students. The curriculum at Path is designed to foster in students “the critical skills necessary for success in college, career, and community.” I am quoting from a promotional brochure for the Academy. The brochure says that many students “become disengaged [from high school] due to lack of understanding.” Path Academy promises to “re-engage” students through understanding, care and “active learning.”

Path Academy will provide “postsecondary preparation” and “workforce readiness.” It all sounds so great: a school with a focus on the socially disadvantaged; a school with an exciting curriculum and with caring knowledgeable staff. But the devil is in the details. When you take a close look Path’s pedagogical model that’s when you realize that you are being sold a bridge in Brooklyn, and that much in the promotional brochure is really nonsense.

Path will offer the “innovative education strategy” of “blended learning.” Whenever you hear the word “innovative” in corporate education reform be on your guard. In this instance, innovative pedagogy means “computer-based & teacher-led instructions” at “personal computer stations.” Translation: students will mostly be “taught” by electronic educational products; and students will complete their learning at private carrels, in virtual isolation from each other. The traditional classroom at Path will be a rarity. That is to say, a teacher in front of a group will probably be the exception rather than the rule. But education at Path is not really education in the sense most of us are familiar with. This is made explicit in a Norwich Bulletin article on the new school. The article quotes Path Principal Brooke Lafreniere on the hidden significance of the individual carrel: the carrel is not about a monastic space where the student can concentrate on reading Shakespeare; instead it will help prepare students for the office world, where employees are often placed in cubicles. Students will eat at their carrels, because, as Lafreniere notes, “when you have a job, there are days when you have to eat at your desk.” The use of space to drive home life lessons is also evident in the design of the classrooms. We are told that lower level classrooms will have small windows and low ceilings, whereas higher level classrooms will have larger windows, and higher ceilings. The point of the distinction is to force home the point that “hard work pays off.” I take it this means that students in lower level classrooms will find it so unpleasant there, that they will work their butts off in order to get into a better “learning environment.”  As LaFreniere says, “everybody wants to work toward the corner office.”

So when you strip away the rhetoric and confront reality, this is what Path Academy is offering:  online learning in controlled, off-putting settings. The real education at Path is not in academic matters, but in the social and cultural values that make one a “good employee.” John Dewey famously distinguished between a pedagogy that focused on “disciplinary training” and a pedagogy that nurtured “personal development.” Dewey thought that “disciplinary training” was not really education as its true purpose was social control. He argued that “personal development” was always something more than job training. And that it was the goal of personal development that made education properly humanistic. The language of Path Academy is a species of nonsense because it pretends that a corporate managerial model of the school as a learning factory can bring to fruition the ideals of humanistic education. Indeed, the very word “academy,” as used by the reformers, has almost no real meaning.

Path Academy is a privately managed charter school, but it would never survive without public funding. Like so much of corporate education reform, its real purpose is not to help the needy, but to steer the educational debate in the preferred direction of more privatization of public schools. The school described in the OPP promotional brochure is a veritable wonderland. It is wise to be skeptical of people who claim too much, and who are ready to sing their own praises. For the sake of the students who enroll there, I hope Path Academy turns out to be a success. But given the sorry and duplicitous “performances” of so many charter schools, I am definitely not counting on Path’s success.


Malloy’s Commissioner of Education signs another $1 million contract with out-side consultants

Governor Malloy and Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor’s education reform and economic development strategy came into greater focus this week with news that a few months ago Stefan Pryor continued his un-ending effort to divert scarce taxpayer funds to consultants.

As previously reported, last month Pryor and his “Chief Turnaround Officer,” Debra Kushan, let go a major portion of the pool of experienced, talented professionals within the Department of Education, Pryor dumped the four Leaders in Residence and three former superintendents who have been providing Connecticut’s poorest districts with the help they’ve needed to improve their educational programing.  Instead, Pryor signed a contract with Mass Insight, a well-connected out-of-state consulting company for nearly $1 million dollars.

Connecticut experts with decades of educational experience working with Connecticut educators were replaced by five out-of-state consultants with virtually no experience working with the biggest issues facing poorer school districts; poverty, language barriers and the large number of students who need special education services.

As if that outrage wasn’t bad enough, Pryor and Kurhan then announced that they were transferring the state’s experts on bi-lingual education, English language learning, multi-cultural programing, bullying and improving school climate out of the State Department’s “Turnaround Office.”  This time, Alliance Districts are losing direct access to the very experts and services they need to improve academic achievement in districts that are confronting the greatest impact from language barriers, diverse populations and school climate issues.

And now comes news that, only a few months ago, Stefan Pryor quietly signed a contract for more than $1 million with a politically connected organization called the Connecticut Center for School Change.

In the “small world” department, the Connecticut Center for School Change’s Board of Directors includes Governor Malloy’s campaign treasurer, Len Miller,

Other members of the Connecticut Center for School Change include the former CEO of People’s Bank; Elsa Nuñez, the Vice President of Malloy’s Board of Regents and President of  Eastern Connecticut State University; Richard Sugarman, Founder and President of The Connecticut Forum whose son just “won” a lucrative contract from Pryor and the State Board of Education to set up an “Our Piece of the Pie” charter school in Windham Connecticut. Another Board member is Dudley Williams, a senior executive at GE Asset Management who once worked for the Connecticut Department of Education and has been one of the most outspoken proponents of Malloy’s Education Reform initiative.  Most of the rest of the Board turns out to be other corporate leaders and consultants

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the story behind this new contract.

More details to come…

Another boondoggle in the making: At a cost of more than $12 million to CT Taxpayers

On Wednesday, June 5, 2013 the Connecticut’s State Board of Education is scheduled to vote on a proposed new charter school for Windham, Connecticut called The Path Academy. 

The Path Academy is a project of Our Piece of the Pie, a Hartford-based “youth development agency” that seeks to “help young people access and attain a mix of the educational, employment, and personal skills that contribute to their success.”

One of their goals is to help “over-age, under-credit (OU) students” get a high school diploma.  The term is a bit misleading because it doesn’t mean that the student is over 21 or even 18.  In many cases it just means the student has had academic problems and isn’t at the standard grade level for that age.

A few years ago OPP partnered with the Hartford Public School System to open Opportunity High School.  Students remain in the Hartford school system, Hartford teachers provide the academic training and OPP provides counseling and support services.

With a student population of nearly 5,400 Hartford students in the high school grades, OPP’s Opportunity High School serves approximately 120 students or about 2 percent of the student body.  According to their website they’ve graduated 81 students since 2009.

Now, despite their fundamental lack of genuine, longer-term experience running a full-fledged school, OPP is looking to get in on the action as the Malloy Administration opens the taxpayer spigot and dramatically increases funding for the charter school industry.

Using the name Path Academy, Our Piece of the Pie has submitted a 604 page proposal to open a school in Windham for “over-age, under-credit (OU) students.”  The primary difference is that OPP is claiming that it is capable of running the entire school on its own, with no participation by the Windham School System or Windham educators and administrators.

Starting with 120 students, OPPs plan is to expand to 200 students in the second year. They also claim that 75% of the slots will be reserved for Windham students, while the rest will come from neighboring towns.

With less than 650 total high school students in Windham, OPP would need to increase their “catchment” from the 2% they get as part of the Hartford School System to more like 23% of Windham’s students…a task that is hardly achievable.

Despite having trouble in school, some students don’t need or want to leave the traditional school setting, while others are already taking advantage of alternative programs for students who are facing academic problems.

To suggest that OPP could fill 75% of its seats with Windham students is simply not possible.

Furthermore, OPP claims that it will fill the remainder of its seats with students from neighboring towns, but of course, nearly all the towns in the region, including Windham, already have programs to support “under-credit” students.

However, instead of having a reasonable discussion about augmenting existing public school programs, the State Board of Education seems poised to provide OPP with a sweetheart deal that would cost taxpayers over $12 million over the first five years alone, and that is using OPP’s own figures.

In addition, while no site for this new school has been announced, OPP has said that it has been negotiating with the out-of-state owners of a boarded up old movie theater in town.  Experts had previously determined the cost to renovate the old Jillson Square Movie Theater would be in the millions, Our Piece of the Pie told local officials that their architects disagreed and that costs would be manageable.

More to the point, state and local taxpayers have already invested millions into specialized programs to help academically challenged students including existing programs at EastConn, the regional’s education service center, as well as programs in the regions community colleges, high schools and adult education programs.

Another troubling aspect of this proposal is that Path Academy’s plan notes that the largest cohort of “over-age, under-credit (OU) students” are bi-lingual and English Language Learners, but the plan put forward by the Path Academy/Our Piece of the Pie®, Inc. is particularly vague on how it would successfully address the particular demographics of Willimantic.

Finally, the OPP proposal plans to, “use a number of computer and web-based tools to enhance student learning. Students will engage in content acquisition on computer-based education programs, and will practice applying these skills using web-based tools, such as Glogster or Padlet. Path Academy will use Edgenuity™ as the primary computer-based education program to support classroom learning. Student learning will be supported by a number of supplementary computer-based education programs, most prevalently, Khan Academy and Wilson Reading Trainer. ” (While it is true that some schools are turning to the use of computer-based learning, considering these are, by definition, some of the most difficult students to engage, putting these young people in front of a computer, even “when blended” with face-to-face instruction, doesn’t seem like the most appropriate solution for the Windham region).

In the end, the question, though, is not whether OPP has or has not had limited success with at-risk youth, but whether scarce resources would be better spent infusing more effective programing into existing public schools rather than create yet another charter school in the state.

With a new state budget on the horizon that fails to adequately fund existing services and appears to be in deficit the day it takes effect, now is hardly the time to throw even more funds at the charter school industry.

Few if any of the new charter school applications seem to have much merit, but the OPP plan for Windham is among the least impressive.

That said, we’ll know soon enough just where the State Board of Education’s priorities lie when it comes to the needs of Windham and eastern Connecticut.