Autonomous Collective Liberationism

I’ve always struggled with what to label myself. I’m a registered Democrat for the sake of voting and other sorts of civic participation, but two parties really isn’t enough, and they’re only a little less openly racist than the Republicans (though I will not pretend there’s no difference between the parties).

But Democrat isn’t really an ethos. It’s a party affiliation.

Liberal was once a title with a strong history, but it’s unfortunately been perverted into cowardice by those who favor inaction over justice. There are certainly some righteous folks who call themselves liberals – we can’t paint everyone with one broad brush – and I won’t bite the political hand that fed and raised me. But I think it’s long since lost the power it once had. It’s an insult from both the left and the right. It’s a no-win proposition.

Progressive? It’s not bad. It aligns with a lot of what I believe in. But, again, I find that the people in the movement can be really terrible at certain forms of oppression. There are far too many racist and sexist progressives, and you can say that the worst of any group doesn’t invalidate the title, but that’s not how I get down, man. I don’t want a big part of it.

This is more or less how I feel about calling myself a Democratic Socialist. Great ideas, great folks, some real racists who think that marginalized groups supporting their own folks is bad. Among both progressives and DS folks, there is the legitimate idea that “GirlBoss” unaware support of women can lead to the support of women with terrible policies. But to dismiss intersectionality whenever something other than class is centered is reductionist, sexist, and racist, and there’s far too much of this among these groups in their rhetoric, even if their policies are generally sound. So while I don’t much disagree with their policies, I disagree with their approach, and approach matters to me.

So what of Socialist or Communist generally? Again, the policies that support a truly egalitarian society are those that I agree with. But I am not at all fond of authoritarianism, and many leftist societies aren’t any less prone to this, which leads to people support leftism of any sort, even when led by dictators. This is not to say that traditional politicans aren’t just as bad! They are! It’s just that, you know, there are ways to really support people without authoritarianism.

Would I go so far as to espouse Anarchism? I agree with many of the tenets. I no longer believe that the state is the best way forward. But I remain skeptical that, had this current situation occurred, full self-governance would have been able to coordinate a response. Maybe I’m just naive, but although I’d rather we had no prisons and no police and many fewer nonsense laws, a very minimal state for emergencies, chosen among the people to serve them and coordinate to avoid chaos.

I’ve looked into things called libertarian socialism and left-libertarianism and a lot of complicated mash-ups and finally I just wanted to pick my own labels.

I think we are in a transformative time, for better or worse. Trump and his clowns could use our eventual recovery as justification to turn this into Gilead and slaughter reporters and intellectuals and so on. But as much as they like power, deep down, I think that guy wants to be liked by the smart people who don’t like him. I think there’s a difference between him and someone who had the singular drive to commit active genocide. Passive genocide, sure, but holocaust-type things require effort, and dude is lazy. That may be the only reason we have a chance to survive this with a chance to continue to accomplish things.

I say all this to say, what I finally came to believe in is what I call Autonomous Collective Liberationism. I think you need all three of those to forge the future we all deserve.

You need Autonomous because, although selfishness is a massive issue, if we don’t give people options about what they themselves can go, provide them with ample agency, and remove hierarchies, we don’t get anywhere.

You need Collective for obvious reasons, that society will be split into a very American style of small uncooperative groups without it.

But you also need Liberationism because you can seek collectivist goals while remaining oppressive. If you seek collectivist goals without specifying liberation, the oppressed wll remain as such with no end in sight. Otherwise, traditionally collectivist societies would have no oppression, and we all know that that’s not the case.

This is the very best way I can conceptualize my politics and my goals in life. I fall short, I will continue to, but Autonomous Collective Liberationism is what I believe in, and also what I made up out of whole cloth to describe my beliefs, because I think we’d all do well to define our views our own way.

Who Determines Literacy?

I was reading this article over at VSB today, and it got me thinking about the definition of literacy. Now, this is something we analyzed in my summer course about literacy, and I learned that the old binary between literate and illiterate is hopelessly outdated, like many things in education.

Yet we are still using the phrase “financial literacy” to describe teaching certain skills to people who don’t have a lot of money.

Now, do some poor people make unwise decisions with their spending? Sure. Because they’re people, and people make unwise decisions. Does it follow that being rich means you’ve necessarily been smart with your money? No. It just means you’ve been lucky.

We discuss “financial literacy” as though it is something we wise people can bestow upon the heathens pounding rocks in caves, when the truth of the matter is, being well-versed in financial systems would truly entail being made deeply aware of how few opportunities being poor afford people. I say this as a person who has never been poor and is unlikely to be. I’ve been “broke,” temporarily, and entirely because I was dumb. But you can’t stupid your way into poverty, you can only reside there by birth or due to lack of opportunity, or both.

It’s not too different from the language education field I am seeking to change, or the “appropriateness” analyzed within raciolinguistics. You know who needs “financial literacy?” It’s all the rest of us, who need to become deeply aware of how our systems are constructed to prevent escape from poverty. If the rest of us became “financially literate,” some would still choose not to care, but I can bet more of us would change our priorities and fight back against a system that harms so many.

This is easy for me to say from my academic perch as I enter 20th grade with my health insurance (and good health) and all. But we really don’t need to teach poor people better habits so much as we need to give them an actual opportunity to have access to money and power. We don’t do it because, in our view, it would come at our expense, and we want to win more than we want to be fair.

You know who’s financially literate? The president is, because he knows exactly how not smart you can be and get continually rescued by the system that values you because of your status. (If he truly believed he was smart and wasn’t scared he was stupid, he wouldn’t talk about his intelligence so much.) And people without money know the system better than most of us just because they can see and feel how it treats them.

Until we actually support our fellow citizens – and I am no economist with ideal solutions for how to do so – teaching them how to put an extra dollar away is just a stopgap. We should probably still do it anyway, though, because the system isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Notes and Takeaways from #AERA19

A few notes on each of the 7 sessions I attended and some overall thoughts.

  1. Basically, white educators really need to sit down and examine what whiteness and white supremacy means. The evidence and analysis is out there. The only thing preventing learning and growth is the willingness to examine oneself.
  2. “White privilege” was once a great framework to use, but it’s become so watered down that people use the phrase to lightly acknowledge reality without doing any hard work. So I’m done using it, because the real issue is, as the scholars in this session said, white supremacy.
  3. The school to prison pipeline is spoken about frequently, but little consideration is given to the root causes of the issues. This theme was everywhere: surface-level acknowledgement, but no risk to the comfortable (myself included).
  4. A really interesting point made in a study on trauma and truth – black parents who help their children see that the system is stacked against them actually help their children perform better, but they accordingly lose trust in schools and schooling. And you know what? Why should they trust schools that aren’t doing the necessary hard work?
  5. “Equity” needs to go. It’s just weaksauce.
  6. Baldwin looms large over every discussion of race and black life.
  7. Data is being irresponsibly and deliberately misused in the Affirmative Action debate. East Asian students do tend to score higher on tests, but colleges look at more than test scores. But in East Asia, where many such parents were raised, schools do not have holistic admissions, so the parents are merely following what they know.
  8. As ever, East Asians are often used by white parents as a cudgel to beat back brown and black people. We need to work together, and then we’ll be strong.
  9. Literally no one cares about the invisible labors of black women educators. Within the ELT field, race is erased.
  10. It’s this last point that has solidified my commitment to fighting racial erasure in the ELT field. We need to speak on race, we need to say it loud, and we have to work together and support each other to deal with the (mostly) white supremacist system that tells us our discomfort is acceptable and desirable but that theirs is almost criminal.

I have a lot more to say, so please ask if you want to hear more. But I’m really glad I came and learned so much. I made connections, met a lot of the people I had only known through twitter, and feel as though I really have a future making the ELT field more supportive of racialized educators.

On ELLs and Immigrants

Children are guaranteed access to public school. Not necessarily good schools, but A school. And by law, at least in some states (including NY), students can receive materials (and teaching) in their native language (depending on which language it is).

You see there are a lot of caveats, right? But still, there is SOMETHING for kids who need to go to school. There is a lot wrong with the system for these kids, but there IS a system.

And what about their parents?

Part of why I’m doing the work I’m doing is because adult learners are not given any of the support their children are. There are programs, sure, and the ones with money can pay for excellent courses. But for the ones who don’t have a lot of money or time, there’s no roadmap. Maybe you get lucky and live near a non-profit that does great work. Or maybe you have access to nothing and you struggle with any and all official documents.

And why is this? Because these adults are just immigrants. Or, to put it another way, they are SEEN as just immigrants, and that’s not exactly high status in this country, especially if your native language isn’t one people aspire to.

The children are immigrants too, of course. That’s just what the word means. But children have a future, see, and they have a chance to become “American.” The adults, they made their choices, they didn’t learn the language before coming, they get the table scraps to fight over, and if they end up in dire straits ebcause of it, then they shouldn’t have come here.

I think this classification hurts everyone, even the people who hate immigrants (not that I care about them, but still), because the successful integration of different cultures should be our goal as Americans. And in much more transactional terms, people who struggle with standard American English are limited in their employment opportunities, which is bad for any economy in which they could participate.

I have no grand point, and this certainly precedes Trump. But think about this before the next time you ponder why an adult struggles to improve their English while their children excel. It’s intentional. To some folks, that’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

TESOL vs SLA

This is a bit of a follow-up to something I wrote about in last week’s post.

I spent about nine years as a TESOL professional, whether or not you’d call some of those jobs legitimate. Over time I got bored, but soon into this current non-TESOL job, I realized (for like the 50th time) that I really do love teaching, and find myself to be at my absolute best when I’m in front of a classroom. So if it wasn’t teaching that I got tired of, what was it?

Now that I’m taking a doctoral seminar on multilingual learners (don’t call them ELLs anymore), I’m realizing that I’m just not interested in the language acquisition/applied linguistics aspect of the field, but I do find the issues of culture, class, race, and linguicism to be fascinating. I think there’s room for me to flourish there, eventually.

The field, like any other in education, is very white, partially by chance, but also by design in that we made a conscious choice to promote the spread of English after winning WW2, and we certainly succeeded. If you want to be a top-flight professional in almost any field in a major city, you had better learn some English, and although this may eventually change to Mandarin, but not any time soon.

I think about my positionality as both oppressed and oppressor as a TESOL professional. Oppressed, in that I am still not seen as the ideal user of the language as a non-white person, but oppressor in that I still needed to hold students to the expectations of standard American English when I was teaching the language.

Some argued in class last night that there is no standard, which is a bit too far for me to go – of course there’s a standard, it’s just that attaching normative value to the standard can be and has been harmful.

Nevertheless, I think about how many people I know very well who would not be accepted in certain circles because their version of English is accented in a particular way, or because they speak in a specific register that’s not considered correct. My own job is much more diverse than almost any other job I’ve had and I appreciate it, but all of us people of color in this office speak a version of English closer to standard. I doubt any of us would have these jobs if we primarily spoke African-American Vernacular English, despite the fact that many of our students do. (One non-black co-worker drops into AAVE when speaking to our students, which I find to be pandering and offensive but I’m not sure there’s much I can do about it.)

Of course, I can code-switch, but I frankly try not to because it no longer feels authentic to me to do so. When I was younger, I code-switched so often I don’t think I even knew what my real voice was, like a little black Christian Bale.  Was I the Justin who wanted to be accepted by his cousins, the Justin projecting a certain persona at school, the Justin on dates, the Justin at parties?

These days I sound the way I sound, and the fact is, my natural speech is acceptably close to the standard, without an accent that is harsh for listeners or slang that marks me as lesser.

I say all this to say that TESOL isn’t entirely about teaching the language to people who are new to the country. And English isn’t entirely about the standard. Raising the status of AAVE and other dialects is important for the future of people who look like me but haven’t had the same good fortune, and I think that’s a valuable way to contribute to the field down the line.

 

A Thought On Deficits and Language Education

Those whose English is not at native-speaker levels are placed into the ELL box in public schools, and the label is more harmful than helpful, in my opinion. Teachers I’ve known have referred to these students as [their] ELLs, as if this attribute was their most defining characteristic.

This is not to say that these students do not need help with the language, but this label connotes a linguistic deficit, and an overall deficit, whereas their language skills are probably stronger than those of their classmates.

Think of it this way. While a handful probably do arrive in school without knowing the Roman alphabet, most come fluent in another language and with rudimentary (or better) skills in English, whereas many Americans will never get beyond “hello” and “goodbye” in another language. These students start from a point of knowing more than one language and should be seen as some of our most valuable learners instead of poor little creatures who need help.

Similarly, though a bit differently, students of color are often shamed for not speaking “correct” English. We are told to adopt the dominant register and diction, and that we are behind if we are unable to do so. While Af-Am Vernacular English isn’t an entirely different language, the ability to float between it and standard American English is itself a strength rather than a weakness.

Am I advocating that all students who use slang be considered fully bilingual? Not really. However a term being used in many of the scholarly articles I’ve been reading is “emergent bilinguals,” and perhaps many students of color (depending on their background) can be considered “emergeny biculturals.” The terminology and jargon don’t matter much to me (I hate jargon anyway), but any way that we can move on from deficit-based teaching would be to the benefit of the majority of our students, and in fact would help the mainstream students as well.

Just my brief thoughts on this, and of course I didn’t cite any studies here, so feel free to disagree. I’ll get back into full scholar mode once school resumes next week.

 

The Academy

I’m about 10% through an EdD in Instructional Leadership.

When I’m done, I may have a few choices, some of which I need to make beforehand to position myself better.

Presuming I’m a strong student and I am lucky enough to present at a conference or two (or even publish), I could:

  1. Just keep doing what I’m doing but with expertise
  2. Work in ed industry leadership in some way
  3. Try to enter the academy

There’s a lot of others, but that’s what I’m really thinking about. I can analyze options 1 and 2 later on, but I’m writing about number 3.

So take a look at this awful situation. The scholar in question is a good friend of mine, and someone I greatly admire. But even if that weren’t true, it would still be resonant to me.

I haven’t at all had the career or life of Dan-el. But I could certainly be a new scholar or professor in ten years. And I’m definitely black. What’s to stop me from having to fight that like he is?

Would I be unable to deal with it? Dan-el provided his own perspective here and it’s a useful addition to the news article. And like him, I’m sure I would swallow my anger and write about it (though not as well as he does).

But I don’t want to have to. Like Dan-el I’m sure, I’ve dealt with nonsense like that being the only black guy in the room, both in education and in working. And I think it had a really serious impact on me, mentally and emotionally. It takes a toll to hold back your responses, and to know fighting back would be more severe than it’s worth.

On the other hand, teaching and researching at the university level sounds really interesting and cool. I think I’d enjoy the field, even as it changes into what it might be thirty years from now.

I’ve been reading a lot of what it’s like, though.

My own professor said, and data backs this up, you’re basically getting 67k a year when you start as an assistant professor, depending on the school. There are other benefits, of course, but still. And most postdocs are lower (I said most, not all).

Basically, it’d be a paycut now, and by the time I was in a position for such a thing, it might possibly be a large one. I may well have a child by then, and frankly, I might not even be able to afford that line of work.

That’s not the only reason, of course. It’s also the possibility of needing to move for work, and no.

But even if it was more appealing, there’s the bigotry. The education research field isn’t remarkably more diverse than that of academia in general. It’s better, yeah, but it’s still a rough go.

Part of me thinks it’s a revolutionary act to join, to try and change things from within. Part of me thinks, as I read online at some point, that you don’t fix a broken system, you just break people.

So I really don’t know. Do I have less strength than my forebears? Or would opting out be a wise choice from which I could do more?

I have no answer to this. I’m going to attend a few conferences, do some strong writing, and see how it shakes out.

Good Intentions: Making High-Profile Education Donations More Effective – Conclusion!

Introduction is here. Part 1 is here, followed by Part 2, and Part 3, and Part 4. Thanks for reading everyone. I will be back with more original content in the New Year. Happy 2019!

These high-profile donations will continue. Trying to stop billionaires from spending their money is a fool’s errand. If the neoliberal adherence to capitalist free market ideology doesn’t diminish, the population of billionaires is going to grow exponentially, until we reach a point where Bezos’s $2 billion pledge looks minuscule, especially for a large urban district. In fact, if Bezos had promised the same amount to the New York City Department of Education, it would represent a significant infusion of capital, but, with an annual budget of $24 billion (Council of the City of New York, 2018), it would be a relatively small increase. Accordingly, if these donations remain prevalent, it is vital that the funds be used to serve the communities in question and not just to facilitate charter expansion and the success of the education management industry. From what we have analyzed thus far, and with supporting evidence from existing research findings, I believe I can offer three steps for present and future donors who claim to want to help students in urban public schools. I will reiterate once more that all of this is moot if their public concern is merely a show designed to mask private indifference and/or cruelty, but if we take them at their word, and if Bezos’s more innovative plan is any indication, they have the capacity and the willingness to listen and learn.

  1. Start From the Bottom

The interventions that have failed to move the needle for public schools have all started by convening experts and public figures across the fields of education, business, and politics, and then coalesced around a free market, accountability plan that ultimately upset many of the community members it was designed to serve. Look to Newark, where Zuckerberg was courted by Booker at a tech conference in California, and where the lion’s share of the money was eventually spent on fighting the extant district system  (Russakoff, 2015). Looking on from outside of the Newark public school system, a donor might say that the district needed to be pushed to change, and they would have been correct in this assessment, but their approach to doing so was so poorly chosen that they expended considerable time and energy on this contract dispute that could have been used for tangible district reform. Facebook’s original motto was “move fast and break things,” and no matter one’s opinion of the company, they are certainly successful at living up to that (since-updated) phrase, perhaps to the detriment of our very democracy. But when they tried to apply it to the Newark school district, the system in place was ready to fight back.

Any systemic change should start from the front lines. As we saw in White Plains, educators and administrators, if given support, can and will find innovative solutions to internal crises. If the hiring of consultants is inevitable – and it probably is – why not send them to district schools to research what teachers and principals would do if they were given time and money to create? Why not ask what stressors are preventing teachers from performing at their very best? There will inevitably be a small number of teachers that are fundamentally not equipped to lead classrooms, but it would be significantly cheaper to spend money and time (and of course, with consultants, time is money) on this than the $21 million spent on buying out scores of teachers in Newark. Donors could also, presumably, spend less than the $21 million spent on consultants’ time if they were used more judiciously (Russakoff, 2015). Ultimately, the goal should be to help district employees find the solutions that will work for their students and families rather than imposing flawed solutions upon them, as they are likely to resist, as well they should.

 

  1. Read the Research

Several studies (Gershenson, Hart, Lindsay, & Papageorge, 2017; Egalite, Kisida, & Winters, 2015) show that having just one black teacher significantly improves outcomes for black students (specifically boys).  In New York, the district has responded by taking pains to recruit and support new black male teachers through NYC Men Teach, which has a budget of $16 million over three years (Fink, 2016). Is that a significant amount of money? Yes, though it’s very little in the context of these donations. Why not expand such programs in districts where “achievement gaps” exist for black students? Or find out what might help the students in a given district if the demographics are significantly different?

It’s not as simple as hiring more black male teachers, though, as part of the reason for the paucity of this group in the teaching corps is that they leave the field at extremely high rates, mostly due to being forced into dual roles as disciplinarians for so-called “unruly” black students (Barnum, 2018). These teachers need to be supported more than they need to be simply hired and thrown into the fire, so programs like NYC Men Teach need to be given much more financial support than they currently receive, even before their long-term results are measurable.

This is hardly the only empirically-supported intervention that could improve public school systems. I admittedly chose this as an example as a black male teacher myself, but the point is merely that donors should use their financial ability to have their employees pore over every inch of available research and decide on a handful of district-specific systemic changes supported by empirical findings. Is it increasing pay? If so, to what level? Is it changing the seniority structure? It might actually be the case that peer-reviewed research supports an intervention that aligns with free market ideology in some instances. But they won’t know if they don’t actually read all the research to see what is the best and most feasible option for a given district.

  1. Everything is Connected

Whoever convinced Jeff Bezos that education was not best served by its usual placement inside a silo where it can be isolated from other societal issues deserves considerable credit. In many cities, homelessness has an impact on a substantial percentage of public school students and their families, not only those without permanent housing, but those who share classrooms with boys and girls grappling with the resultant anxiety and trauma.

Education is also closely tied to employment, with low-income parents often forced to work time-consuming and physically demanding jobs that prevent them from supporting their children by remaining involved in school events, even if they otherwise would. Education is related to healthcare, both physical and mental, with many families unable to afford appropriate treatment for their children, treatment that is of particular need in communities with less healthful air, water, and food. And, as much as we often prefer to ignore it, education is inextricable from the racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination that are persistently prominent in our society. To pretend, as we often do, that we can save an education system by focusing only on instruction – or only on the results of standardized tests – is to consign ourselves the sort of failure we have seen from even these most talented and successful donors.

When I say we ought to look at the research, I don’t want to imply that findings from a district in Florida should be grafted onto Brooklyn without taking into account the latter’s particular context. When I say we need to speak to the educators on the ground, I mean we should do so to learn what is unique and specific to a particular district or school. I fear, with these recommendations, that the adherence to a goal of a national model will supersede the need for contextualization, and I want to be clear that my first two recommendations are of little use without the third. We need to consider each of these societal issues in turn if we hope to improve outcomes for students and families in our schools, and we will improve nothing if we don’t. A portion of any future education donation should be reserved for the creation of school-based responses to a city’s specific structural issues, even if they are unlikely to be solved quickly.

 

The main question I cannot answer – that no one can really answer – is what is in the heart of high-profile education donors. Surely, there is some ego and vanity involved in the process of making such donations publicly, but on the other hand, these districts are usually so large that one really does need to give tens or hundreds of millions to make a dent on the budget, and any donation of that size is not going to go unnoticed. Districts budgets are tight, and so my recommendations might not be possible as donors are unlikely to make these changes unless pushed, and districts are under considerable financial pressure to accept the donors’ terms. After all, who wants to be the chancellor or mayor who turns down a ten-digit donation on principle?

Nevertheless, I believe these changes would appeal to the capitalistic side of these wealthy men, especially if they want both a return on their investment and the public relations boost a successful donation might provide. If a future donor were to engage deeply with the community (or hire consultants to do so), incorporate the findings of peer-reviewed research, and contextualize their reform efforts, students and families could see great benefits. Instead of attempting to create a rubber-stamped national model to save people, they would serve as examples for other reformers, who could in turn learn to help more effectively.

I can’t claim to know how to solve the many problems in American public education, but, at least to this point, neither can most of these donors. What I do know is that they have enough money to find the right answers, but only if they ask the right people the right questions.

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Vengattil, M., & Dastin, J. (2018, September 13). Amazon’s Jeff Bezos commits $2 billion to help homeless, pre-schools. Retrieved from Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-bezos-philanthrophy/amazons-jeff-bezos-commits-2-billion-to-help-homeless-pre-schools-idUSKCN1LT2MN

Wieder, B. (2014, September 22). Retrieved from FiveThirtyEight: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-most-important-award-in-public-education-struggles-to-find-winners/

Wilson, C. (2018, April 3). White Plains schools focus on increasing diversity in advanced courses after fed investigation. Retrieved from Lower Hudson Valley Journal News: https://www.lohud.com/story/news/education/2018/04/03/white-plains-schools-diversity-advanced-courses/1020788001/

 

Good Intentions: Making High-Profile Education Donations More Effective – Part 4

The series continues. The introduction is here. Part 1 is here, followed by Part 2, and Part 3, and today is Part 4. There is one part remaining, followed by a conclusion.

Now it’s Jeff Bezos’s turn to try and be the savior, but there are some differences in his approach from the ones we have discussed to this point.  In early September, months after soliciting advice and commentary via his public Twitter account, the Amazon founder announced that he would pledge at least $2 billion to create what he is calling the “Day One Fund,” which will center on pre-school education for low-income families. The money will also be used to help homeless families access permanent residences. Notably, Bezos has long faced criticism for his business practices leaving many of Amazon’s frontline workers eligible for public assistance, with Senator Bernie Sanders even proposing a bill designed to force corporations to better compensate their employees, which he called the “Stop BEZOS Act” (Vengattil & Dastin, 2018).  He was also singled out for his choice not to join Warren Buffett’s “Giving Pledge,” where many of the world’s wealthiest individuals promised to donate the majority of their amassed wealth to charity (Bhattaria & Davenport, 2018). Bezos clearly refuses to follow the crowd, even the rarefied billionaire philanthropist crowd, but in this case, that might actually be a good idea.

The Day One Fund will create new pre-schools in underserved areas, yet instead of building new networks of charter schools that inevitably draw resources away from district schools, this addresses a real need, as many districts do not guarantee educational services for children younger than kindergarten age, and by this point, many students are already significantly behind their peers. Among other studies, James Heckman et al. (2017) found that district investment in early-childhood programs had a strongly positive rate of return, and the value of expanding pre-K is one of the few topics in educational policy often agreed upon by people on the left and the right, even though many states have yet to prioritize such initiatives.  This early discrepancy was part of the justification for New York’s continually expanding Universal Pre-K program. I cite the research here to demonstrate that Bezos’s idea to expand pre-K is based on proven results. He may be donating this money to look better in the public or to avoid having more bills passed against his business practices in Congress, but unlike the prevailing theory in “accountability” movements that tying teacher pay and/or district financial support to test scores will lead to improved results his fund will begin with a direction that is based on what the research has shown to be true.

More importantly, though, is the fact that the donation will be split between the expansion of pre-K and the creation of affordable housing. With even progressive cities like New York suffering through a crisis in which more than 10% of its public school students lack permanent residences (Shapiro, 2018), any intervention that attempts to improve outcomes in education without addressing housing is almost doomed to failure. What will Bezos actually do to address homelessness? It’s not yet clear, since at this point it’s a press release, a speech, and some tweets to interpret. The money, if used carefully, might be enough to simply provide housing to a certain number of families in need, or to improve deplorable shelter conditions. I’m not sure how Bezos and his team came to the decision to focus on housing in conjunction with education when the other major education donors have largely stuck to the same playbook, and, again, at the moment, it’s all talk. Bezos claims that the communities will be driving the way the money is spent, but he also runs a company that barely pays its frontline workers a living wage. In fact, the book “Nomadland” follows several seasonal Amazon employees who themselves have no permanent address. “Some call them homeless,” Bruder (2017) wrote. “The new nomads reject that label. Equipped with both shelter and transportation, they’ve adopted a new word. They refer to themselves, quite simply, as ‘houseless’” (p. xiii). Critics could easily say that the best thing Bezos could do to combat homelessness would be to pay his employees enough that they didn’t have to create neologisms for their unsecured housing status.

Nevertheless, there are enough good ideas in Bezos’s plan that, whether or not they actually come to fruition, there is a road map there for future donors to follow. These are very smart and successful people, and their goal is to help students who need extra support, then there are ways to avoid the missteps of many education philanthropists and serve the members of these communities.

Good Intentions: Making High-Profile Education Donations Better – Part 3

Part of an ongoing series from a much longer essay I wrote for school. Introduction is here. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Today is Part 3. Don’t steal it, obviously.

The Broad Prize for Urban Education was designed to be seen as equivalent to “Nobel or Pulitzer Prizes for education” (Prothero, 2017). It awarded up to $1 million to major American urban school districts that succeeded at closing the achievement gap for low-income minority students, and existed from 2002 to 2014, until it was suspended.

The prize was awarded based on a series of metrics including reading and math scores, standardized tests, graduation rates, and Advanced Placement. It specifically targeted the 75 largest urban areas in the country, with the stated goal to improve public school performance. The prize sought to “restore the American public’s confidence in public schools by spotlighting districts making significant gains in student achievement” (Broad Foundation, 2002, p.3). In any given year of its existence, the selection committee and review board could count among its members former US Secretaries of Education, university presidents, chief executives of high-profile non-profit organizations, and even several state governors. Unlike some of the other examples cited here, the Broad Foundation sought what anyone might consider verifiable educational expertise. Some have criticized the Broad family for their personal donations to school choice and charter expansion movements, but the director of the prize counters this by saying the foundation’s ideology is kept entirely separate (Wieder, 2014). Whether or not one chooses to believe this assertion, it is clear that the Broad prize was not without guidance from accomplished leaders in education.

As we saw in Newark, however, seeking counsel from leaders and chief executives is not the same as seeking input from community members, students or even classroom teachers. Governors, for example, have outsized impact on school funding in their states, but don’t exactly have experience working with struggling learners. University presidents are usually experts in their field, but unless and until our education system truly transitions to a more P-20 structure, their field is separate from that of public elementary and secondary schools. In other words, the Broad prize sought counsel from prominent figures who were affiliated with education to varying degrees, but not from people directly connected to the public schools they wanted to save.

It strikes me, when looking at said results, that 70% of the awardees were from the Southeast. In researching student performance over the past several years, much of the publicly available data has come from this region. The Broad prize was clear that it sought out to close the so-called “achievement gap” between students of different demographics, and saw even their recipient districts show only incremental progress year over year. I mention the region because the American Southeast has a particularly high black population, relative to other parts of the country (Henry J Kaiser Foundation, 2016). There are certainly different student outcomes based on race in almost every state, but in the Southeast, it is a particularly salient problem because of how many students are affected. I use the word “problem” purposefully here, because I believe that is the obstacle preventing many of these donations from the level of success they would like to reach. Black students do, factually, have structural disadvantages. But these donations, by seeking guidance only from the top and not from the communities themselves, see these students as part of a collective problem to be solved instead of as learners who need to be treated as individuals with idiosyncratic challenges, even if those challenges might recur within a community. In other words, it brings prestige and attention to have the governor of Kentucky on the selection committee (as was the case in its first year) (Broad Foundation, 2002), but I’m not sure he really had anything to say that would have made things better for these students.

The idea behind the prize is an incentive: if this $1 million could possibly be awarded to a district, they should be particularly motivated to improve outcomes for their students. The money was awarded via scholarships to college-bound seniors, and, although the prize is “taking a break” (Broad Foundation, 2014), they continue to fund the scholarships that were promised; it cannot be said that no one has benefitted from these donations. Unfortunately, offering an entire school district a financial incentive is a flawed idea in the first place, as it assumes that what these districts lacked was enough motivation to help their students. If the prize was intended to rival a Nobel or Pulitzer, it should assume, like those prizes do, that great work is being done and truly exceptional outcomes will be rewarded.

There is a persistent insistence on creating a so-called “national model,” as we have seen in previous sections. A national model is scalable, transferable, and adaptable. And if a national model is found, then experts can be imported from any urban area and expected to improve the outcomes for students in a given city. But are the issues in Newark or Nashville the same as those in New York? According to Ben Wieder of the Center for Public Integrity, “Although some of the curriculum is transferable between schools, …varying socioeconomic characteristics of different school districts — and the challenges they might present — require a tailored approach to school management” (Wieder, 2014). And even within a district, schools in adjoining neighborhoods will require different approaches from one another. Considerable effort and substantial sums of money have been directed towards nationalizing student achievement, when, as has long been the case in American education, the most viable solutions are local and specific.

As an example, in White Plains, New York, the Federal government found that black students were underrepresented in Advanced Placement classes, which is a common issue across the country. At one middle school, they noticed that minority students were not aware of how to access these programs. “At Highlands Middle School, for the district’s seventh- and eighth-graders, Principal Ernest Spatafore said there used to be no clear explanation of what advanced courses were offered and what grades and scores were needed to be eligible for them. So, they developed a handbook in English and Spanish that is distributed to every student. The schools also hold curriculum nights for parents to discuss class options and engage families in the course-selection process” (Wilson, 2018). The district was commended for their progress in 2015, and although they still struggle to enroll English Language Learners in AP courses, I suspect they will find a tailored, district-appropriate solution to this challenge, even without the promise of a financial windfall.

Of course, small tweaks that help an individual school population don’t make national news and they certainly don’t help the bottom line of consultants and education management companies, so donors continue to throw money at the “education problem” and wonder why this sort of top-down education reform doesn’t lead to more than incremental progress. In a way, this is a sort of trickle-down education reform, and it’s just as effective as trickle-down economics, which is to say that it helps the executives but not the teachers, the students, or the families.