Common Core’s New New Math has the Same Problem as the Old New Math

Bad ideas are like unlucky pennies – they keep coming back again.

Take the New Math. Or maybe I should say the New New Math.

Common Core State Standards suggests we teach children a new way to do arithmetic. We should focus on multiple ways to reach an answer with an emphasis on understanding the concept behind the problem rather than just manipulating numbers.

It sounds fine in theory – until you think about it for five minutes.

When learning a new skill, it’s best to master a single, simple approach before being exposed to other more complex methods. Otherwise, you run the risk of confusion, frustration and ultimately not learning how to solve the problem.

Take directions.

If you’re lost and you ask for directions, you don’t want someone to tell you five ways to reach your destination. You want one, relatively simple way to get there – preferably with the least amount of turns and the highest number of landmarks.

Maybe later if you’re going to be traveling to this place frequently, you may want to learn alternate routes. But the first time, you’re more concerned about finding the destination (i.e. getting the answer) than understanding how the landscape would appear on a map.

This is the problem with Common Core math. It doesn’t merely ALLOW students to pursue alternate methods of solving problems. It REQUIRES them to know all the ways the problem can be solved and to be able to explain each method. Otherwise, it presumes to evaluate the student’s understanding as insufficient.

This is highly unfair to students. No wonder so many are failing.

Sadly there’s some history here that should have warned us about the perils of this approach.

Common Core isn’t the first new math approach to come along. In the 1960s we had a method actually called “The New Math.” And like Common Core, it was a dismal failure.

Like the Core, it proposed to focus more on conceptual understanding, but to do so it needlessly complicated matters at the grade school level.

It introduced set theory, forcing students to think of numbers as groups of objects rather than abstractions to be manipulated. In an advanced undergraduate mathematics course, this makes perfect sense. In first grade, it muddles the learning tremendously.

To make matters even more perplexing, it mandates students look at numbers with bases other than 10. This is incredibly confounding for elementary students who often resort to their fingers to help them understand early math.

Tom Lehrer wrote a very funny song about the new math which shows how confusing it can be. The methods used to solve the problem can be helpful but an emphasis on the conceptual underpinning at early ages perplexes more than it helps:

Popular culture is full of sly references to this old New Math. Charles Schultz wrote about it in several Peanuts comic strips in 1965. In one such strip, kindergartener Sally gets so frustrated trying to solve a New Math problem she cries, “All I want to know is, how much is two and two?” New Math even made an appearance in the 1973 movie “There’s No Time for Love, Charlie Brown,” in which the titular Brown asks “How do you do New Math problems with an old Math mind?”

In the 1992 episode of the Simpsons, “Dog of Death,” Principal Skinner is elated that an influx of school funding will allow him to purchase school improvements. In particular he wants to buy history books that reveal how the Korean War ended and “math books that don’t have that base six crap in them!”

So where did this idea for New Math come from?

In 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik sending Americans into a panic that they were being left behind by these Communist supermen. As a result in 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower passed the National Defense Education Act which dramatically increased school budgets and sent academics racing for ways to reform old practices. One product of this burst of activity was the New Math.
A decade later, it was mostly gone from our public schools. Parents complained they couldn’t help their children with homework. Teachers complained they didn’t understand it and that it needlessly confused their students.

Fast forward to 1983 and President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education. The organization released a report called “A Nation at Risk” that purported to show that public schools were failing. As a result, numerous reforms were recommended such as increased standardization, privatization and competition.

It is hard to overemphasize how influential this report was in education circles. Even today after its claims have systematically and thoroughly been debunked by statisticians like those at Sandia National Laboratories, politicians, pundits and the media persist with this myth of failing public schools.

“A Nation at Risk” birthed our modern era of high stakes testing and, in 2009, Common Core.

In theory, each state would adopt the same set of academic standards thereby improving education nationally. However, they were written by the standardized testing corporations – not working educators and experts in childhood development. So they ignore key factors about how children learn – just like the New Math of old.

In short, we repeated the same mistake – or a very similar one.

Children are not computers. You can’t program their minds like you would a MacBook or iPhone. In many ways, including math instruction, Common Core ignores these facts.

And so we have the same result as the old New Math. Parents all over the country are complaining that they can’t help their children with their homework. Teachers are complaining that the Core unnecessarily confuses students.

In some ways, the Core is worse than the old New Math because of its close connection with high stakes testing. In the ‘60s if a child didn’t understand how to add, he failed math. Today, if a child does that, he fails the standardized test and if that happens to enough students, his school loses funding, his teacher may be fired and his school may be closed. As such, the pressure today’s children undergo is tremendous. They aren’t just responsible for their own learning. They’re responsible for the entire school community.

Those are unfair burdens for school children – especially when the decisions that make it easy or hard for him to learn are not made by the student but by politicians, pundits and policymakers.

But perhaps most telling is this: it doesn’t help children learn.

Isn’t that what this was all supposed to be about in the first place?

Perhaps we don’t need a new math. Perhaps we simply need policymakers willing to listen to education and childhood experts instead of business interests poised to profit off new reforms regardless of whether they actually work.

Shouldn’t Our Schools At Least be as Logical as Dental Floss?

All my life I assumed flossing was essential to dental health.

It was safe, it was sound, it was normal.

Every day after brushing, I would stand before the bathroom mirror and carefully thread a mint-flavored filament through my teeth – like a chump.

And when I got to the dentist, I’d comfort myself that I had done the best I could to prevent cavities.

The hygienist would remove plaque and germs while scraping and sawing at my teeth with a specialized hook, and all the while I’d think, “At least I flossed every day!”

Yet now the federal government tells us that flossing is ineffective at best!

What!? After all these years!?

It turns out, there just is no evidence that flossing actually helps – never has been. So this summer for the first time in decades the good folks who compile federal dietary guidelines decided not to recommend the practice.

A total of 25 studies have concluded that the evidence for flossing is “weak, very unreliable,” of “very low” quality, and carries “a moderate to large potential for bias,” according to the Associated Press.

“The majority of available studies fail to demonstrate that flossing is generally effective in plaque removal,” said one review conducted just last year. Another 2015 review cites “inconsistent/weak evidence” for flossing and a “lack of efficacy.”

So flossing is out.

It’s not evidence-based.

It’s actually kind of shocking to see the federal government acting so logically.

Where’s the politics? Why aren’t Republicans taking one side and Democrats the other? Why isn’t the dental floss lobby making massive contributions to our lawmakers to influence the decision?

But we get none of that in this instance. Instead, here’s the evidence. It doesn’t support this policy. So let’s discontinue that policy.

I wonder what the world would look like if every government stance was as susceptible to argument, cause and effect, and rationality.

As a public school teacher, I’ve become inured to our lawmakers doing exactly the opposite. They look at the evidence, see it DOESN’T support an education scheme and then… they proudly give it their full support.

As a result, education policy is full of unfounded, fallacious and unproven practices.

Our schools are struggling under the burden of illogical laws. Our teachers are pulling out their hair at a series of half-baked mandates that go counter to everything they’ve learned about childhood development. And our students suffer from procedures that don’t help them learn and in fact actually do much to prevent them from doing so.

Take standardized testing, Common Core and school choice.

Our legislators think standardized testing is the best way to measure learning. Are you freaking kidding me!? In colleges and universities across the country where this has been studied in-depth for centuries, it’s been disproven, ridiculed and considered an antiquated way of thinking about learning. It went out with phrenology and eugenics!

Multiple choice tests like these have consistently been shown to correlate more closely with socioeconomic status than intelligence, retention or understanding. Put simply: if you’re rich, you do well. If you’re poor, you don’t.

Standardized tests as we know them were developed in the Victorian Age to “prove” that wealthy people were just smarter than poor people. They were created to show the innate inferiority of black and brown people and the natural superiority of the white race.

Yet these kinds of assessments still are the backbone of the public school system.

Another fallacious policy championed by many lawmakers is Common Core State Standards. But like The Four Temperments, the Geocentric Universe, and the Flat Earth Theory, they aren’t backed up by evidence. In fact, each of these disproven scientific hypotheses has MORE EVIDENCE behind it than Common Core! Each of these ancient models was based on evidence but later refuted. By contrast, Common Core was never empirically based. In fact, it has never even been studied. Someone just pulled it out of their butt!

Let me say that again: there has never been any proof that Common Core will help children learn. In fact, far from showing any improvement, since its adoption, student outcomes have plummeted. But in many states it’s the law of the land.

In truth, Common Core is a series of academic standards developed by the testing and publishing industry as a way to sell more standardized tests and remediation materials. They were only adopted because state officials were blackmailed to accept them. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have enough money to continue running their state schools. In many cases, the standards weren’t even voted on by state legislators but instead by appointed boards of education.

Yet today these standards (or very similar ones) are required in public schools across 42 states.

Finally, we have the political darling, school choice. Many Republicans and Democrats champion some form of choice and competition in our schools. They all think it will help, despite the fact that there’s more evidence for UFOs, Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster!

Very few countries try to help students by increasing their choices without also trying to increase the quality of those choices. Nowhere has it ever been shown that having more schools to choose from is better than less schools to choose from – if you don’t improve the quality of those schools. Simply having more options and having those options compete doesn’t make them better. As John Oliver pointed out recently, the town with the most pizzerias doesn’t necessarily have the best pizza.

In fact, in countries that have initiated school choice policies, they’ve seen educational quality drop – not rise. Yet billionaires all across the US push for us to adopt these policies all the while investing in schemes to enrich themselves if such a policy shift occurred.

It makes no sense. These are misguided, unfounded, and downright insidious ideas.

Yet everyday pundits, policy-makers and politicians still advocate for them – somehow with a straight face. And when someone who actually works in the schools like me points to the evidence – or lack thereof – I’m ignored.

In the words of Frank Zappa, “Modern Americans behave as if intelligence were some sort of hideous deformity.” And our education policies are doing nothing to fix it.

The problem is the very banality of corporate school reform. After almost two decades of these strategies pushed on both sides of the aisle, they’ve become the status quo. It’s just the way we do things.

They’re as common as… well… dental floss.

The federal government saw through the vapidity of that practice. Isn’t it time the administration does the same for corporate school reform?

Do Unions Belong in the Fight Against Corporate School Reform?

In the fight for public education, the forces of standardization and privatization are running scared.

They’ve faced more pushback in the last few years – especially in the last few months – than in a decade.

So what’s a corporate education reformer to do?

They can’t control the facts, so instead they try to control the story being told about the facts.

It’s a classic propaganda technique. As Malcolm X put it:

“If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

Their story goes like this – yes, there is a battle going on over public education. But the two sides fighting aren’t who you think they are.

The fight for public schools isn’t between grassroots communities and well-funded AstroTurf organizations, they say. Despite the evidence of your eyes, the fight isn’t between charter school sycophants and standardized test companies, on the one hand, and parents, students and teachers on the other.

No. It’s actually between people who really care about children and those nasty, yucky unions.

It’s nonsense, of course. Pure spin.

They want you to believe that the corporate vultures preying on our public schools are really just misunderstood philanthropists. And those demanding a fair shake for their own children and communities are really just paid shills from a monolithic and uncaring bureaucracy.

In essence, they want you to believe two things:

1) Despite profiting off the system and zero evidence supporting the efficacy of corporate school policies, they’re motivated purely by empathy.

2) Unions are evil by definition and they pervert everything they touch.

I’m not going to bother with the first claim here. There is an inherent bias from those who wish to change the laws so they can more easily profit off of schools without actually helping students learn and in fact exist at the expense of that learning. If you can’t see through the propaganda wing of the Walmart corporation, the Broad Foundation and Big Daddy Bill Gates, you probably won’t be very receptive to anything else I have to say.

Instead I will focus on the second claim, because it is the more pernicious of the two.

Put simply, unions are not perfect, but they are not evil. In fact, they are essential to the health of public education.

Many progressives are upset with teachers unions because of the current Presidential election. Both the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) endorsed Hillary Clinton in the primary election without what many would consider adequately polling rank and file members. For better or worse, the endorsements were top-down affairs reflecting the preference of union leaders.

That’s not how unions are supposed to work. And it’s having consequences for the way both members and non-members view teachers unions.

Critics infer from this that unions don’t represent membership. They are de facto arms of the waiting Clinton administration and the neoliberal agenda.

There may be some truth to this, but it does not represent the whole picture. Not nearly.

Unions are like any other democratic organization. The larger the association, the further from the grassroots the decision making body.

In the mammoth national unions, decisions are made by representatives most removed from our schools. They probably were teachers or support staff at some point in the past, but that may be ancient history. Now they are professional leaders and therefore at a remove from the grassroots.

By contrast, in our local chapters, leaders are most often working classroom teachers. Decisions are made by those still meeting students’ needs on a day-to-day basis. As such, they retain an authenticity and expertise that may be more cloudy in the large bureaucracies.

This isn’t to say the national unions are by definition unconcerned with the needs of teachers and students. I’m sure that most of the NEA and AFT leadership who decided to endorse Clinton did it because they honestly believe doing so will help public education. And – who knows – they may be right. But what they forgot in this case was the democratic process they were tasked with preserving. As such, they may have to pay a price for their hubris when their terms are up.

In most cases, the leaders of national teachers unions are at too much of a remove to see what is best for our schools. And they usually know that. It is up to the rank and file to tell them what to do, and that’s what happens every year at representative assemblies through various caucuses made up of work-a-day members. And if leaders overstep their authority it is members’ duty to hold them accountable at election time.

So even though the national organizations are most likely to go astray, they often don’t. Usually even these giants are trying to improve the situation in our public schools.

However, it can’t be denied that the most intense and passionate activism happens a bit closer to where the rubber hits the road. It’s those local chapters that are there everyday and make the most difference. They are the heart and soul of unionism.

So when corporate education reformers sneeringly deprecate their opponents as mere unions, they’re glossing over an important distinction. Opposition to privatization and standardization policies doesn’t come from the leadership of the NEA and AFT. It comes from the grassroots. This is not a top down initiative. It is bottom up.

This is how it’s always been. There is no political organization directing the fight to save public education. The Democrats certainly aren’t overly concerned with reigning in charter schools. It was grassroots Democrats – some of whom are also union members – who worked to rewrite the party platform to do so. The Clinton campaign is not directing anyone to opt out of standardized testing. However, voters are demanding that Clinton be receptive to their needs – and some of them are union members.

There is no great union conspiracy to fight these policies. It’s called public opinion, and it’s changing.

That’s what scares the standardizers and privatizers. They’ve had free run of the store for almost two decades and now the public is waking up.

They’re desperately trying to paint this as a union movement when it’s not. Unions are involved, but they aren’t alone. And moreover, their involvement is not necessarily an impediment.

Both want excellent public schools.

Both want the best for our students.

Both want academic policies that will help students learn – not help corporations cash in.

And both groups want good teachers in the classroom – not bad ones!

The biggest lie to have resonated with the public is this notion that teachers unions are only concerned with shielding bad teachers from justice. This is demonstrably untrue.

Unions fight to make sure teachers get due process, but they also fight to make sure bad teachers are shown the door.

In fact, in districts with strong unions, MORE bad teachers are fired – not less, according to a new study by economics Prof. Eunice Han from the University of Utah.

The study entitled The Myth of Unions’ Overprotection of Bad Teachers concludes that when unions are strong and successfully bargain for higher salaries, they have an incentive to help ensure ineffective teachers don’t receive tenure. In short, it costs too much to keep bad teachers on staff. It is in the interests of the collective bargaining unit to ensure those unfit to teach move along.

Moreover, Han also concludes that strong unions actually help reduce the dropout rate. It just makes sense. When you treat people like the professionals they are, when you give them autonomy and respect, they’re free to concentrate more energy into their jobs than fighting to keep those jobs.

But unions stand in direct opposition to the efforts of corporate vultures trying to swoop in and profit off of public education. Teachers provide a valuable service to students. If your goal is to reduce the cost of that service no matter how much that reduces its value to students, you need a weak labor force. You need the ability to reduce salary so you can claim the savings as profit.

THAT’S why corporate education reformers hate teachers and their unions. We make it nearly impossible to swipe school budgets into their own pockets.

So do unions belong in the fight against corporate education reform?

Answer: Heck yeah! In fact, they are essential to it.

I Teach The Toughest Kids, and I Love It

It was rarely a good thing when LaRon smiled in school.

It usually meant he was up to something.

He was late to class and wanted to see if I’d notice. He just copied another student’s homework and wondered if he’d get away with it. He was talking crap and hoped someone would take it to the next level.

As his teacher, I became rather familiar with that smile, and it sent shivers down my spine.

But on the last day of school, I couldn’t help but give him a smile back.

A few minutes before the last bell of the year, I stood before my class of 8th graders and gave them each a shout out.

“I just want to say what an honor it’s been to be your teacher,” I said.

They shifted in their seats, immediately silent. They wanted to hear this.

“Some of you have been a huge pain in my butt,” I conceded.

And almost all heads in the room turned to LaRon.

And he smiled.

Not a mischievous smile. Not a warning of wrongdoing yet to come.

He was slightly embarrassed.

So I went on:

“But I’m proud of what you’ve accomplished this year. Each and every one of you. It has been my privilege to be here for you,” and I nodded at LaRon to make sure he knew I included him in what I was saying.

Because I do mean him.

Students like LaRon keep an old man like me on my toes. No doubt. But look at all he did – all he overcame this year.

His writing improved exponentially.

Back in September, he thought a paragraph was a sentence or two loosely connected, badly spelled full of double negatives and verbs badly conjugated. Now he could write a full five-paragraph essay that completely explained his position with a minimum of grammatical errors.

Back in September, the most complex book he had read was “The Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” Now he had read “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” How did I know? Because I had read it with him. We had all read these books together and stopped frequently to talk about them.

Back in September, if he raised his hand to ask a question, it was usually no more complex than “Can I go to the bathroom?” Now he was asking questions about where the Nazis came from, what happened to Mr. Frank after the war, did Harper Lee ever write any other books, and is the fight for civil rights over.

The last day of school is one of the hardest for me, because my classes are doubled. I don’t just have my students – I also have the ghosts of who they were at the beginning of the year.

They all change so much. They’re like different people at the end, people I helped guide into being.

And I must say I absolutely love it!

As hard as it is being a teacher, as much as you’re attacked in the media and the government, as much as you’re expected to do, the supplies and books you buy with your own money, the hours after school while your own children sit at home without you, the late nights grading and the mountains of paperwork you have to fill out to justify being kept on another year – even with all that – I love being a teacher.

And my greatest joy is the tough kids.

Every year that’s usually who I get.

When I started teaching I expected to be more of an advanced placement educator. I have several degrees, experience as a working journalist… I’m really a rather bookish guy, myself. But when I got in the classroom, it was the troubled ones, the ones in trouble whom I really excelled at teaching.

I had only been in the profession for a few years when I stopped my car in a really bad neighborhood. I was looking for an address for a homebound student and couldn’t find it. Up walked a group of tough looking kids that could have been extras from “Boyz N the Hood.” I thought my life was over until I heard, “Mr. Singer! What you doing here?”
“Andre!?” I said incredulously. “Little Andre!?

“Not so little anymore,” he smiled.

He dapped me up and gave me directions.
I see former students everywhere. Or more accurately, they see me.

The other day I was at the movies with my daughter, when a grown man walks up to me and says, “Hey, Mr. Singer. Hey, little Singer. What movie are you going to see?”

I didn’t recognize him at first because he had a smile on his face. When I taught him more than a decade ago he never smiled. He had serious health issues and always seemed miserable.

But here he was. He had made it. And though it took a while for his name to reach my lips, he knew me like I was a member of his family.

That’s the kind of relationship you get as a teacher. You’re there for the hard times. You’re there for the bad. But you help each other through it.

That’s something non-teachers don’t understand. My students help me as much as I help them.

Sometimes I got to school worried or upset about various concerns in my personal life, but as soon as those kids file into the room, all that noise is gone. In a split second, it’s forgotten. I get a burst of energy, because I’m needed. I’m there for them.

If you’ve never taught, you have no idea how good that feels.

One evening I was sitting at my desk at school, a stack of papers in front of me, feeling frustrated. I wanted to go home but there was so much work left to do. (I don’t like taking work home. When I’m there I’m a full-time husband and dad.)

So I sat in class debating what to do when three huge high school football players appeared in the doorway and came running at me.

I cringed, cowering in my seat about to be tackled.

“Mr. Singer!” they screamed, stopping in unison and giving me, their former teacher, a bear hug.

Moments like that make it all worth it.

The kids know you care. I’ve heard some folks say that none of that matters. You don’t have to care about your students. You don’t have to like them. You just have to teach them.

Nonsense.

I couldn’t do it any other way.

So on that last day when LaRon looked up and smiled, I smiled back.

There was so much meaning in his smile. So much joy behind his eyes.

More than any report card, he knew what I knew.

He knew that despite a challenging home life, despite the call of the streets, and tremendous difficulty of concentrating and believing in himself, he had really achieved something this year.

He knew because I knew. And he smiled because I smiled.

And when that last bell finally rang, he took all of that with him.

I can’t believe I get to do all of that again this year with a new group of children!

Damn! I really love this job!

What Real School Choice Would Look Like – And Why What They’re Selling Isn’t It

I can’t hear the words “School Choice” without thinking of Inigo Montoya from the classic film “The Princess Bride.”

I hear Mandy Patinkin’s voice saying, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Because just like the constant cries of “Inconceivable!” from Sicilian boss Vizzini (portrayed by the inimitable Wallace Shawn), policymakers seem a bit confused.

You would expect School Choice to mean that parents would get to choose the school their children attend. However, the policy being pushed by corporate education reformers has nothing to do with that.

It’s about allowing schools to choose students, not the other way around.

Want your child to attend a charter school? Great! In many cases he needs to meet the requirements of admission – good grades, well behaved, no learning disabilities – otherwise they boot him back to the traditional public school he came from.

Want your child to use a voucher to attend a private school? Fine! The voucher will pay for some of her tuition, but you’d better be able to make up the rest AND she needs to meet the criteria for admission.

If administrators don’t want to accept your child, they don’t have to, nor do they ever have to explain why, nor do you get a public forum where you can question them, nor do you have any power to vote them out.

They could decide to turn you down because your child is a minority, disabled, gay, has a belief system of which they do not approve, anything really! And they will never have to explain themselves to anyone.

To me, that’s not school choice. But that’s what they’re selling and some folks are buying it all up like an email sent to you by an inconvenienced Nigerian Prince who just needs your help with a funds transfer.

However, this isn’t to say that the idea of School Choice – REAL School Choice – is inconceivable. (Forgive me, Vizzini.)

You could devise a system of School Choice that actually involved parents being able to choose the school their children attend.

I wouldn’t suggest it. I’m opposed to all forms of School Choice for reasons I’ll make clear later. But I would certainly be more amenable to a plan that actually did what it seems to promise.

So what would real educational choice look like? What would we need to achieve this goal?

First, it would require a massive increase in school funding.

Think about it. You’re asking the government to pay for several separate, parallel systems of education. Students won’t just have School A to choose from. They’ll have School A, B and C.

So we need to construct more schools. We need to staff them. We need to provide each one with books, computers, equipment, etc. That’s going to cost an incredible amount of money.

We’re talking about at least doubling the amount of money we pay for public schools – more likely tripling or quadrupling it.

This is certainly possible. Maybe it’s even preferable. But it won’t be politically acceptable for many people. The push has been to downsize government, do things on the cheap, lower taxes, etc.

Strangely, School Choice cheerleaders often push their agenda as a way to save money. That’s because they don’t care about the quality of the choices they’re offering. They’re not providing enough money for several excellent schools that parents can pick from. They’re taking the money we already spend on one school and having multiple schools fight for it.

It’s like a dogfight for schools. They’ll rip and tear at each other, and the winner gets to take away the most funding. It’s a bad model for animals and an even worse one for schools because everyone loses. No one walks away with enough money to get the job done. You end up with several choices but none of them can really provide the best academic experience. None of them can even provide the kind of education that would come from having just one well-funded choice.

What’s worse, in most states even before you start adding parallel schools, the current funding system is broken. We simply don’t provide enough funding for the schools we already have without adding even more choices.

All public schools don’t get the same amount of money per pupil. That’s true even when you adjust for costs.

Under the current system, schools with a rich tax base provide Cadillac resources for their children. Meanwhile, schools with a poor tax base can’t provide everything that is needed so their kids have to do with less. That means fewer resources, fewer teachers, larger classes, etc.

So-called School Choice policies only make this worse. Schools that already don’t have enough funding to meet their students needs have to give larger portions of their shrinking budgets to charter schools. So instead of one school without enough funding, we have two. That doesn’t fix anything.

However, both of these problems are solvable and the solution is the same in both cases – money.

If you want real choice, you need to do two things: (1) discontinue funding schools based on local property taxes and (2) dramatically increase school funding. Both the state and federal government would have to kick in much more. Local taxes could still be collected to pay a portion for public schools – this could even be collected based on how much each community can afford – but no longer could we allow poor students to get less funding than rich kids. No matter where you lived – in the slums or in a gated community – you’d get whatever funding your school deemed necessary.

This would probably be paid for with a substantial tax increase, though you could also make cuts in other places in local, state, and federal budgets. For most people, I think this would be unacceptable, but it is certainly conceivable.

Second, you need the same rules governing these separate systems – especially when it comes to admissions.

This would be especially hard on charter school and private school administrators.

There could be no more picking and choosing which students get to attend your school. If an emotionally disturbed student with bad grades and an even worse record of behavior wants to attend your charter school, you’ve got to accept him. If a poor student whose parents don’t have the money for tuition (even with the voucher in hand) want to attend your private school, you’ve got to accept her.

This shouldn’t be such a burden. It’s what traditional public schools do now. They take everyone regardless of grades, ability, behavior or poverty.

Third, all schools would have to be transparent and democratically controlled. Their budgets and internal documents would have to be open to public record. Moreover, decisions about how to run the school could not be made behind closed doors – they would have to be made in public. And school directors would have to be subject to democratic control. Decision-makers could no longer be appointed by boards of investors, the mayor or any other bureaucrat. They’d be selected by voters. These would all be public schools, after all, and as such would be subject to rule by the public.

Think about what that means. If your child attends a school, you should get a say in what happens at that school. Even if your child doesn’t attend the school, even if you have no children, you should have a say simply because you pay taxes.

This has been the practice at traditional public schools since forever. In fact, unless the school has been taken over by the state, it’s required by law. But at charters and private schools, it’s not always the case.

It’s funny. In many ways under our current system, the public gets much more input, much more choice at traditional public schools than at so-called School Choice institutions.

Many charters and private schools would balk at this. They are not run democratically and are not beholden to the public.

That’s just the way they like it. Their business model requires it. If they had to be fully transparent and accountable to taxpayers, what would happen to those schools organized for-profit?

I would assume that they would disappear. I think very few parents and taxpayers would allow a fully transparent school to pocket a large chunk of its budget like that. I can’t imagine the public approving a decision to cut student services to boost the bottom line – but this is exactly what happens at certain charter schools every day. Only the protection of current School Choice policies that shield investors from taxpayers allows this kind of malfeasance.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

We can have real School Choice without all the drawbacks of charters and voucher schools. We can have a system where parents get to pick their children’s schools, where the public is in control, where every child gets an excellent education.

To do so, we’d need a series of fully funded, fully transparent, democratically run schools subject to the same rules and expectations.

Hmm. But that’s not so different than the traditional public school system we have now. Perhaps doing so would give all schools the latitude to experiment that is usually given to charter schools. But for the most part, we’ve equalized our school system and simply eliminated the worst abuses of charter and voucher schools.

We’ve also radically increased the raw number of schools in the system. And we’ve allowed students to attend schools where they don’t necessarily live, but ensured they get adequate funding no matter where they attend.

The result is real Student Choice. Parents get to decide where their children attend, and – at least in theory – all choices would be excellent.

I’ve got to admit – from a certain vantage point – it doesn’t look so bad. Sure it’s going to cost a lot of money, but maybe it’s worth it.

However, finding the cash isn’t the only obstacle. For instance, how do you adequately administrate such a system?

I cannot imagine how administrators could decide how much money their school needs from year to year if the student population can change so dramatically in that time period. How would administrators know how many teachers they need and in which subjects? How would they be able to determine the number of classrooms, how many school lunches are necessary and a host of other things? Wouldn’t it be terribly disruptive to have teachers moving from school-to-school every year following student mobility?

Additionally, how do we provide transportation with students traveling hither and thither? It would be difficult just to organize buses to get kids to school. Older students could be given bus passes, but that wouldn’t be safe for elementary and middle school kids to be traveling this way unaccompanied by adults.

I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it would be very difficult. Perhaps someone could find a system that works. However, I fear this kind of institutional instability would result in some schools being woefully understaffed and underprepared while others have too much.

Moreover, such a situation would be extremely wasteful. We’d be spending much more than we need to provide children with an excellent education. We’d be duplicating services unnecessarily. Personally, I can deal with that much more than its opposite. However, flushing tax dollars down the toilet is a bad practice.

Is there a middle ground that provides parents and students choice without wasting so much money?

Yes.

Instead of providing a series of parallel education systems, supply one system that is able to deliver multiple services.

First, you’d need to fix the funding inequities mentioned above. You don’t have to double or triple what we spend, but you’d probably have to increase support somewhat. And it would have to be distributed fairly.

Then once every school has the funding necessary to give every student what he/she needs, we can work on individualizing that experience. This is exactly the opposite of current education policies from the Bush and Obama administrations.

I’m not talking about Competency Based Education, either, the latest scam to make standardization look like a student centered model. I mean no more high stakes standardized tests, no more Common Core, no more corporate education reform.

Imagine if every district allowed parents and students to choose what kind of education they got within the system. Your child wants to study music? We’ve got an excellent music program. You want your child to study a foreign language? We have plenty of award-winning programs to choose from.

Schools would be able to meet the needs of all students because they would be fully funded. No more poor schools and rich schools – just schools.

To meet this ideal, we need to forgo the fake School Choice being offered at present. We need to stop having schools fight over dwindling resources like pit bulls.

THAT would be a choice worth making.

It would be the best kind of school choice.

We Are All Chicago Schools – More Layoffs, Less Help for Other People’s Kids

“Fuck those kids.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel couldn’t have been clearer if he’d said the above.

Chicago Schools Chief Executive Forrest Claypool couldn’t have made his priorities clearer if he’d given Chicago’s parents the bird and told them to “Kiss my ass.”

The Chicago Board of Education – made up of members all of whom are appointed by the mayor – decided to layoff 1,000 teachers and staff at the city’s public schools just a month before opening day. Sure, some may keep their jobs through reassignment, but hundreds will be unemployed.

This after a recent history of closing more than 80 schools and slashing thousands of jobs. Just last February, the district laid off 62 employees, including 17 teachers. In January, it laid off 227 staff members.

This begs several questions: How many teachers and support staff can Chicago Public Schools afford to lose? What exactly is this doing to its students? How is it affecting their future prospects to be taught by a skeleton crew?

The city’s leaders don’t give a shit.

And why should they? These aren’t their kids!

Emanuel’s children attend University of Chicago’s Laboratory Schools, a private institution. Claypool’s kids go to Francis W. Parker, a private school in Lincoln Park. Even Gov. Bruce Rauner’s six kids don’t go to public school. They’re all grown.

So this doesn’t affect them. Nor does it affect any charter school kids. Not a single one of these 1,000 cuts will occur at a city charter school.

It’s just the traditional public schools, those schools where approximately 85% of students are Latino or African-American. Just those schools where 87% of the children come from low-income homes. Just those schools where 12% of kids are reported to have limited English proficiency.

Yeah. Fuck those kids.

And the worst part is that it’s not necessary. Chicago doesn’t have to continue to abandon its neediest children.

When you’re in a family, you make sacrifices for your kids. If funds are tight, you make cuts elsewhere or maybe you even take another job. Anything to make sure you’re providing your children with the best.

But Chicago’s leaders aren’t interested in doing any of that for these kids because they just don’t care.

Otherwise they could find the money. The teachers union suggests declaring a TIF surplus and reinstating a corporate head tax. The city isn’t exactly a wasteland. Wealthy developers are looking to build yet Emanuel has no intention of inconveniencing them by making them pay a fair share of taxes. Instead, the full burden falls on the city’s working families. And he calls himself a Democrat!

There’s always enough money for projects leaders care about. For instance, there was no problem finding \$250,000 to pay a law firm where Claypool and his handpicked general counsel, Ron Marmer, both formerly worked. Marmer still has financial ties to the firm! So cut a check to Jenner & Block LLP? YES! Ensure kids have all the teachers they need? HECK NO!

Strangely there’s \$27 million hiding in the seat cushions to open a new charter school for the University of Chicago. The Woodlawn Campus of the University of Chicago Charter School will be part of the development around the newly-planned Obama Library. It’s a fitting symbol of the President’s legacy – a brand new privatized educational facility while a few blocks away traditional public schools molder in ruin.

Meanwhile, Gov. Rauner holds the state education budget hostage. Illinois lawmakers could only agree on a 6-month state budget in June. Republicans expressed concern about the state being responsible for bailing out Chicago Schools. It’s not our problem, they seem to think. Well of course not. These aren’t your kids.

It’s the same swindle we see throughout the country. Refuse to pay for public schools – especially the schools serving poor brown kids, and then shrug. “Look at the impasse,” they shout, hoping voters are too stupid to realize it’s an impasse created by these lawmakers, themselves! It’s a textbook disaster capitalism move, approved by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other conservative think tanks. But Rauner can at least be forgiven for being a proud Republican. This is, after all, the behavior progressives expect from GOP lawmakers.

What about Democrats like Emanuel? This isn’t the way progressives are supposed to act. They aren’t supposed to favor privatization over public schools. They aren’t supposed to fawn on big business and promise tax cuts, tax shelters, and every other kind of tax avoidance.

Some might say it’s just Emanuel. After all, for a Democrat he sure pals around with a lot of conservatives. He and Rauner are best buddies. When Emanuel earned his fortune, he was an investment banker, and one of his best clients was Rauner. They go out to dinner and even spend vacations together. Sure they occasionally criticize each other in public, but behind closed doors the ideological differences just melt away.

What about the rest of the Democrats? Surely they don’t agree with Emanuel’s tactics. They made sure to keep him away from the Democratic National Convention – out of sight, out of mind.

But if the party is really so opposed to these policies, where is the condemnation from party leaders?

I haven’t heard a peep from the Democratic nominee for President, Hillary Clinton, about these layoffs. Have you? She’s the de facto leader of the party and she’s got nothing to say about this. What does that tell you about her priorities?

Sure she’s cozied up to the two biggest national teachers unions who liked her so much they didn’t even need to consult the rank and file before endorsing her in the primary. Ronald Reagan had the support of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) right up until he declared their strike illegal and demanded they return to work. Will Clinton, too, turn against union teachers once she’s used them for their vote in November?

But you know what? Forget Hillary. Where’s Bill? Where’s Tim Kaine? Where’s Barack and Michelle Obama? Where’s Joe Biden? Where’s Al Franken? Where’s Cory Booker?

We have to get beyond labels like Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. Almost all of them are neoliberals. They all believe essentially the same things.

And as proof I offer the deafening silence offered against Emanuel in Chicago.

He’s hurting school children.

But no one in power gives a fuck.

Pittsburgh School Director Donates Kidney to 7-Year-Old Student

Moira Kaleida represents the best of public service.

Some people would give you the shirt off their backs.

She gave a sick child a kidney out of her body.

The Pittsburgh School Board Director isn’t related to the 7-year-old student. She is barely an acquaintance. She doesn’t even represent the ward in which he and his family live. But when she read a Facebook request asking for donors, she says it was a “no-brainer.”

“I thought if it were my kid, I’d want to know someone was out there trying,” Kaleida says.

“It really doesn’t affect my everyday life beyond the couple of weeks of recovery. But for him, it’s something that changes his life drastically.”

The child, Laith Dougherty, had already undergone two heart transplants, one when he was 3 months old and another when he was 3 years old. But in 2012, a test showed his kidneys were working at only 35 percent capacity. After a series of illnesses in the fall, they were down to 6 percent and he was on dialysis.

None of his immediate family was a match and his B blood type made finding one difficult. He was looking at a wait of between 6 months and two years before a donor could be found.

That’s when the family reached out to Facebook. Kaleida saw it, privately investigated to see if she was a match and when she was, she contacted Ghadah Makoshi, the child’s mother.

“It’s shocking to me because I had only met her once or twice,” Makoshi says. “It’s sacrifice to say, ‘I’m going to go through surgery and pain to make sure your kid survives.’ Most people wouldn’t do that.”

The surgery was done in June and the kidney began working immediately. Laith is expected to make a full recovery.

Kaleida is a woman of high ideals.

The 32-year-old mother of two doesn’t just talk the talk. She walks the walk.

Though she’s only been on the board since November, she has been on the right side of just about every issue.

She was the impetus behind the district’s newly approved transgender student policy. After principals and legal experts alerted her to the need for procedures to protect students’ rights and provide supports, she successfully lobbied her fellow school directors to take action.

“We’re moving forward on the right side of law and history,” she said at the time.

She’s also an advocate for community schools and the restorative justice discipline policies currently being enacted district-wide. She supports the idea that Pittsburgh schools should be at the center of the community providing medical care, wraparound services, before- and after-school programs, etc. to help keep children in the classroom. She favors a discipline policy not focused on punishing students but ensuring they make things right for their misbehavior.

To that end, she is a firm supporter of new Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet. When Hamlet was attacked by corporate education reformers and big money interests earlier this summer, she stood by him.

She may be one of the most progressive members of a very high-minded board.

Though city schools struggle to keep afloat because of underfunding from the state and federal government plus an increasingly impoverished local tax base, the district has one of the best boards in the state.

In fact, in many similar urban districts like Philadelphia City Schools, there is no elected school board.

If a Political Action Committee (PAC) has its way, the same thing will happen here. Deep-pocketed investors are gathering funds to unseat as many Pittsburgh School Directors as possible and – if possible – push for the district to be run by government appointees, not duly elected representatives.

Kaleida’s story shows exactly why this would be a mistake.

Corporate cronies would never look out for the needs of the community the way actual residents do. People who live in the community, know the community and relate to the families and children living there are far superior to anyone making decisions based on a spreadsheet.

Kaleida is a lifelong resident and graduate of the district. When she ran for office, even the privatization-loving Pittsburgh Post Gazette couldn’t help but endorse her due to “her superior detailed knowledge of the city schools and their challenges.”

Kaleida dedicates herself to raising her children and volunteering for various organizations. She has given time to the International Cesarean Awareness Network (ICAN); NurturePA, which supports new mothers; and various neighborhood efforts. She also tries to find more funding for the district’s Pre-K initiative so it can provide services to even more children.

She represent District 6 neighborhoods including all or parts of Brookline, Beechview, Banksville, Mount Washington and Duquesne Heights.

Laith is lucky his school is represented by a woman like Kaleida. So are all the parents and children of Pittsburgh.

We need more school directors like her and her colleagues. And more than anything we need more local control of public education.