Monday, December 30, 2013

Corporate influence hurts more than helps education

Former FCPS teacher Jim Hanna takes a big swing at Kentucky's version of corporate education reform in today's Herald-Leader. Surprisingly, what he is reacting to is the donation of Bob Sexton's papers (and some of the Prichard Committee) to the UK library (where I'm sitting right now, by the way). The news apparently caused him to choke.

Say what you will about Sexton, Silberman, and the Prichard Committee's philosophies, but their impact on state education policy is undeniable and preserving Sexton's papers for scholarly study is very important...and a long way from a publicity stunt.

But an intriguing set of questions surround the issues raised in Hanna's piece - questions I have been studying for a couple of decades now. Just how did corporate education reform manifest itself in Kentucky? What drove the change? Who was doing the thinking? What deals were stuck? And whose plans were followed? Did Sexton really get the reform he envisioned? And Jim's question: Was Sexton really a shill for corporate interests?

The same set of policy confusions that saw Ted Kennedy and George W. Bush join hands around NCLB were present in Kentucky. Republicans and Democrats have been generally indistinguishable on education policy over the past decade or two. Both are present on the Prichard Committee, and that accounts for some percentage of its strength. It has only been since the Republican National Committee's defection from Common Core last April (originally a Republican idea, but the defection occurred in response to Obama's full-throated endorsement of CCSS) that has splintered the group into factions - generally along the lines of pro or anti-Obama factions. It remains to be seen how the diminishing influence of TEA Party activism in the wake of this year's government shutdown might impact the strength of that opposition.

Some of Jim's facts are a bit skewed (Kentucky has generally ranked much higher in road funding than school funding; and formative assessment is a good idea whether there is a summative assessment or not) and some of the history is twisted (such as KERA "introducing politics into the schools" - Ha! In a state where, historically, some number of people would be shot on election day over school trustee elections and the jobs that would be derived from them?) but still, he raises some interesting questions - questions mostly raised by Diane Ravitch on the national scene. And Ravitch has some delicious ironies of her own.

This from Jim Hanna in the Herald-Leader:

It's hard to grin when you're choking on your breakfast, but that's what I had to do when I read the Nov. 20 article. The news of this publicity stunt was pretty hard to swallow.

I don't mean to personally disrespect my friends on the Prichard Committee, or Stu Silberman, or the memory of Robert Sexton, whom I met only once. He seemed like a nice fellow.
But I must point out the truth.

The Prichard Committee has had a negative effect on Kentucky schools, and Sexton, in his role a director, was a shill for corporate influences which have had a deleterious role in education.

Readers will remember that, for decades, schools in Kentucky suffered under niggardly attention from the commonwealth's politicians. Underfunding, consolidation and shenanigans on the local level were chronic problems. Just like roads, bridges, sewers and such, the schools were not maintained at an adequate level.

The Kentucky Education Reform Act had a couple of laudable goals: to increase and equalize funding and to stop nepotism and corruption at the county level.

However, another facet of KERA has been counter-productive and damaging to our schools. So-called "education reform" introduced politics into schools and classrooms.

The Prichard Committee, funded by corporate interests, has pushed for an education system run by testing, platitudes and public-relations hype. This top-down, corporate model is focused on politicians and bureaucrats rather than teachers and students.

This can be seen in many ways. Standardized testing rules the day. In classrooms, even elementary school students are subject to testing pressure, such as frequent "learning checks" or "exit slips." Such things are not designed by teachers to help students, but mandated by bureaucrats and "experts" to increase scores on tests.

Somehow, the state cannot afford new textbooks, but can spend millions of Kentucky dollars on tests from out-of-state corporations.

In Fayette County, there's no money for school nurses, but we can pay to hire the superintendent of a neighboring county to try to increase test scores.

Statewide, our schools are subjected to unproven policies that are really public-attention grabs: replacing the failed KERA with Senate Bill 1, raising the dropout age, increasing graduation rates and implementing common core standards.

The ability of teachers to run their classrooms and of principals to run schools and to back up teachers, has been subverted by questionable testing and monitoring schemes implemented by the state school board in Frankfort, with complicity by the Prichard Committee and its moneyed backers.
Teacher professionalism and political strength has been undermined for the past two decades. Our high schools are becoming diploma mills (with colleges soon to follow, under similar pressure).

Teachers know that reform isn't working; parents are finding out. There is already a growing, nationwide movement against testing (an old nemesis) and common core standards (a new one).
Meanwhile, the politicians and bureaucrats act as though everything is OK. The article about the priests and acolytes of reform getting their shrine is an effort at convincing parents of this.

Parents shouldn't believe it. They should take any story about public-education reform with a large grain of salt. They should refuse to allow their children to take these standardized tests.

And they should remember, as I did with a smile, a delicious irony: The committee which has done so much to harm education while pretending to help is named for Ed Prichard, whose vote fraud conviction made him the most infamous crook in Kentucky political history.

Read more here:


Anonymous said...

Thanks for speaking up, Jim! I continue to feel there is a penalty for writing such an op-ed piece or criticizing people in Fayette County Public Schools. You are free now...

In all honesty, I do think Sexton was a good man and a great public intellectual, but Silberman has hoodwinked us all. No public intellectual in Silberman. Just a power hungry northern transplant who came to FCPS, waved a magic wand, and convinced us that all the testing mania is "about kids."

I never know the way the political winds are blowing on this website. One minute we are seeing all the dirt fit to print on Silberman. Now I see a defense of Silberman and his "legitimate" place in the history of education reform in Kentucky. Funny, I also criticized Prichard for his vote fraud once and received a brow beating from the moderator. I'm surprised you didn't get one.

That being said, my advisor at UK led me to the excellent monograph on Prichard by Dr. Campbell. I urge all to read it.

Richard Day said...

Thanks for the comment, and apologies for whatever brow-beating I may have delivered. I hope I was just showing the other side of whatever argument was being made.

I smiled when I read your comment, “I never know the way the political winds are blowing on this website.” Strange as it may seem, I’m glad you feel that way. Our topics are typically newsy, sometimes silly, and often political, but they are not partisan and are not designed to support or defeat any person’s candidacy or agenda. We don’t believe in superheroes. Our bias is pro-public school, but we’re not mad at anyone. I hope we stay focused on the needs of kids and schools, explore issues from all sides, and ask a few good questions along the way. Then, readers can reflect and decide for themselves.

Silberman is a good example. We have tried to report on, and to some degree assess, his FCPS superintendency and his leadership of the Prichard. We acknowledge his strengths and when his actions seemed to support the best interests of kids we have said so. But when his actions have not, we have not shirked from publishing the truth, so far as we can verify it through published comments and public records.

Prichard is another good example. How should history record his public record? Should we restrict ourselves to the good things he did, on the theory that he was a mostly good and important man?

Conversely, should we discount all of the good he did because he also had (illegal) shortcomings? Our solution is to look at both sides, explore questions, and suggest conclusions. That’s pretty much what Campbell does in Short of the Glory, and I agree, it’s a good read.

In this day of partisan rhetoric and polarized ideologies we hope to stand somewhere in the middle and examine the surroundings.
Thanks for reading and commenting.

Anonymous said...

As a guy who proudly "does" history of education in Kentucky, I think Sexton will, and should be, remembered as a positive influence on Kentucky and education.

That being said, I definitely agree with Mr. Hannah's negative assessment of Silberman, and I may might add, it is a disservice to Prichard to have Mr. Silberman (no earned doctorate) running that organization.

Sexton was an historian and a friend of so many men and women who cared about the state. He could talk to many people, and I don't think he was as polarizing as "Stu." I loved the relationship that Sexton had with Tom Clark, our most well-known historian. Sexton knew a lot about education and its foundations. I think he understood the history of education in Kentucky. I nevers aw Sexton as egotist. His papers will be valuable to historians, and I'm glad they were donated to UK

That being said, I have never felt Stu Silberman was an intellectual, a humanist, or a man even remotely interested in Kentucky or its traditions.I don't think he could hold a conversation with Diane Ravitch, Dewey or Plato.

Stu Silberman is a man full of canned phrases and is just simply one of those who men who saw an opportunity and ran with it. An egotist, Stu knew how to form successful alliances with groups that felt shut-out in FCPS. He had Merlene Davis eating out of his hand, and he was often seen at Bracktown Baptist. Those who worked with Stu in the schools knew that he was ruthless and willing to sacrifice subordinates for personal gain. Hurley-Richards and Petrelli were two of his victims.

When and if Stu's papers are donated to UK, I hope the lawsuits that were brought against him are placed in a prominent folder for all to see. And that's day I'll be choking on my breakfast.

Richard Day said...

Thanks for the comment.
To my knowledge, Silberman doesn’t have any scholarly papers, but he does have years of public school administrative experience (something I value, as one might imagine).

[The rumor was (and I have never tried to verify this)….that he once ruffled feathers at WKU, by wanting their Ed Ldrshp folks to hook him up with a doctorate based on his experience. They reportedly said, “No,” as they should have. (He arguably approached the wrong school. There is some reason to believe he might have done better with UofL, which has a bit of a history with this sort of thing.) But I digress…]

To clarify, the donations were of Sexton’s papers and some Prichard Committee papers. I could be wrong, but I don’t believe there are any “Silberman papers” included, per se. I’ll start getting into them this spring.

Silberman’s importance in history (beyond Daviess & FCPS) derives from the fact that the Committee chose him to follow Sexton, and since that time his leadership of the group matters. Time will tell…but there are a few early indications of how he plans to manage.

Any fair assessment of the two men will reveal two different characters. I share your assessment of Sexton. I was fortunate enough to spend some time talking with Bob near at the end of his life. I found him to be politically savvy, and yet, completely open and honest about his work. He was not devoid of ego, but it was clearly not what drove him. I hope I get to know Silberman a bit better over time. Until then, I watch what happens.

Anonymous said...

I believe that our education system is in the state that it is in because of our local leadership. For example, the overall quality of our leadership on local boards of education in Kentucky is quite poor. There is more cheerleading and justification behind really bad decisions sometimes from these boards than there is focus and attention to the kids. I would be very hard pressed to think of and name about 25 truly effective school board members statewide. I'm concerned about the quality of our local leadership. I enjoy those board members who have original thoughts and who are not afraid to speak out when ideas or events are just plain wrong. Just seem to be very few of those folks around.

Anonymous said...

I agree with previous comments (Dec 31 @ 10:33). Often you end up with folks who don't have the slightest idea what instruction is or needs to be because their entire frame is based on their own educational experience decades ago. You end up with folks with narrow agendas or want-to-be big fishes in small ponds. Seems like recent news stories about superintendent fiscal misconduct indicates that board members either don't know how, don' want to know how or don't care how the money is flowing. I realize that many are well intentioned but being a a well intentioned educator doesn't necessarily mean that my students are going to academically achieve - there has to be hard work and expertise (dare I say experience).

Let's face it residency in a particular geographic boundary and the ability to muster more votes than the other guy doesn't mean you can do the job - we see that all the way of the state and federal ladder.