Selling Out and Profit Making in Education

Years ago education was the space for passionate people with a trenchant sense of appreciation for the community and world.  It was the place of Caldecott  Award winning books, old school Milton-Bradley, Hasbro, Fisher-Price and hands on.  It was the age of ‘doing’ and included all manner of creative thinking.  Those of us involved in it had studied subjects such as Piaget, neuro, psychology and development.  One might say it was the pre-industrial education revolution.

There was no specific time when pre-industrial education became post-industrial waste as it is still occurring. What is distinctly different is the characterization of the ‘sell out’ and the justification for ‘selling out’ by the very people who supposedly had their hearts and souls in education.  I understand how toy manufacturing companies were able to mass produce more games. I am unclear where they went from thoughtful and creative to mass-produced ‘stuff’ which needed to be marketed.  An example is the slow deterioration of Fisher-Price with amazingly thoughtful pieces related to many aspects of society (farming, cars, etc.) to the mass-produced schlock of knock off plastic kitchens with myriad assorted bits and pieces resembling a child version of Ikea madness.

The change over was gradual. It is somewhere in notes from board meetings and marketing ideas and profitability studies. What is missing from these same records is how the new-new thing fits into the Montessori  or Waldorf concept, has anything to do with observations Piaget made or how it developmentally enhances the environment for children.  The see-saw tipped and $$$ began to be far more virtuous than learning.  Learning, in and of itself, has no value until it is applied, whereas one could ascribe value to learning by attaching an object(s) which was thought to ‘improve’ the learning process.

We went from the very cool toy store and/or bookstore in town with wooden puzzles and wood trains and cloth dolls to Toys R Us.  While it was happening, seemingly few people aside from professional educators noticed the change in product. Not just the quality, but the quantity and type.  Games became things which required batteries and less thinking. The only doing was inserting the battery…..Calculators came into vogue such that if you could ‘do it’ on a calculator, who needed to learn the underlying concept.  In this sense, professional educators assisted TI in overtaking maths and making outstandingly HUGE profits.

Calculators became the standard-bearer for learning math quickly and efficiently. Unfortunately, no one who studied education was truly consulted and new math came into vogue. Algorithms? What are those? Where is the button on the calculator?  Flash cards and Cusinaire Rods and all the rest were practically buried en masse in cabinets if not thrown out in the trash by parents who wanted their child to ‘learn’.  Anyone caught with the actual tools of learning were castigated and treated as if they were stone age hominids.

Calculators morphed into computers, the worlds supposed greatest educational opportunity. No one would learn without a computer. The Luddites were scorned.  The backlash created more pre-schools committed to developmental learning (Montessori, etc.) and more private schools which were ‘low tech’ learning academies – they were not quite ready to jump onto an untested, not tried and true concept.

And in the midst of this, learning, most especially at the collegiate level was viewed as penance. The big universities suddenly rebuilt dorms and student centers to entice the brightest and best to their campus. Charter schools popped up like spring bulbs long asleep under cold earth.  In order to avoid the perceived ‘penance’, ITT, University of Phoenix, Boston Reed and other pay to play colleges sprouted and milled tons of underperforming graduates who could use calculators and turn on computers AND had a diploma to prove it.  The founder/CEO of University of Phoenix has a ‘beyond’ mansion he is currently trying to sell off, but that is a whole other story.   Unfortunately, the newly minted grads have had a hell of a time with the job market and can not pay off their substantial loans which bought their diplomas.  It doesn’t matter – the people who work for these organizations made a pretty penny by commercializing on cheap education, mass produced.

In the middle of all of this craziness and change one other phenomenon was being born. The trenchant  Luddites were wondering what to do with all the accumulated stuff from years past learning, businesses sending manufacturing abroad but leaving behind all matter of potential educational junk, recyclables, left overs, mis-appropriations and so forth.  The big not for profits which come to mind are Materials for The Arts in NYC, which saved my life during grad school, East Bay Center for Creative ReUse which saves my life now,  and RAFT (Resource Area for Teachers), which started out as the thinking teachers secret ‘almost’ back room to the Exploratorium, but better!

Materials for The Arts and East Bay Creative Reuse have been able to stay true to their mission. Sadly, RAFT began a slow and painful  descent of casting out its idealism to the wind for profits, as if it were actually a for profit Silicon Valley Corporation of some type.  RAFT is now a mini-version of Michael’s or Jo-Anne Crafts with a bit of Oriental Trading catalog thrown in.

Within all the turbulence of what education was and has become, teachers have been left with less and less in the way of professional development, materials and hands on, developmentally appropriate resources which are affordable.  The teachers were never the sell outs – no one can actually afford to pay a teacher what they are worth in America. What is sad is that teachers and students are punished.

Each time a great idea attempts to go to the ‘profitable’ side of things, beyond a reasonable draw in salary for the executive who founded the organization, it becomes an epic fail  which  takes years to undo.  For profit charter schools have proven to be no better than not-for profit and both have never demonstrated themselves to be any better than regular public schools in general.   For profit colleges have become even more notorious paper mills than what the ivy league has supposedly done over the years (ex: George W. Bush) AND students are not qualified to obtain an adequate job to pay off the extremely high interest rate loan.  The last thing teachers need is another ‘retailer’ in which to buy cheap supplies.

What teachers need is a community of educators. Teachers require the time to learn with and from other professionals.  Teachers need to be able to use meaningful resources with little to no cost (usually called donations) so they can continue to teach,  SO STUDENTS LEARN.

When not for profits and for profit businesses which were once committed to education, sell out, everyone loses.  The profits don’t trickle down, the losses to community do.

And, Aspire Public Education follows http://californiawatch.org/dailyreport/after-lawsuit-officials-call-new-statewide-charter-rules-8660

On Monday, February 27, the Aspire Board of Directors approved our expansion to Memphis in school year 2013-2014, contingent on charter approval. We expect to receive approval in June.

Memphis represents a unique opportunity to change the odds for underserved children. There’s deep need. Of the 105,000 students currently served by Memphis City Schools, 85% receive free and reduced lunch. Of the state’s 5% lowest-performing schools, 80% are located in Memphis. Local leaders have already proven themselves strong partners who are willing to do what it takes to ensure we succeed. Local funding – both public and private – supports long-term financial stability. State and local policies are, for the most part, charter friendly; where they aren’t, we’re working with local leaders to change them. Finally, Memphis’s position in the national education reform spotlight will strengthen our voice in the conversation about how to make College for Certain a reality for all children. Today, Memphis is a hot spot for reform. It presents an opportunity for us to partner with many others to create a national example of what is possible when adults across work together on behalf of kids. Together, these factors make Memphis a place where we can contribute to transformative school system change.

To get expansion right, we will grow to only one new city in the short term. This means that other cities that were in consideration – most recently, Nashville and New Orleans – are no longer “in the running” for 2013-2014. Both cities are eager to have Aspire serving their kids, and we’ll continue to explore these exciting partnership opportunities down the road.

As some Home Office teammates begin spending more time on expansion, we will work hard to ensure that Memphis does not distract the organization from continuing to provide high-quality support to our current schools in California.  Our California team is the foundation of our model and  we know strong California schools will be the backbone of any success we achieve at a national level.

We’ve started reaching out to folks who expressed an interest in relocating to Memphis for the 2013-2014 school year.  If you’re interested in potentially relocating, but didn’t take the survey, please reach out to your area superintendent. We know you likely have many questions about relocation, compensation, benefits, and the specific role you’d play. We’re working fast and hard to get you those answers, and we’ll keep the information flowing as it becomes available.

Finally, note that we’re preparing for a public announcement in late March or early April, when we submit our charter applications. In the meantime, we’ve prepared a few talking points (below) for questions that may came up from outside parties.

Growth to Memphis represents an exciting first step in a national expansion that will benefit students who most need high-quality schools. As always, Senior Leadership Team doors remain open. We look forward to hearing from you with any thoughts you have about this next step in our journey towards College for Certain for all low-income children.

Key Messages About Aspire Expansion

Why is Aspire expanding outside of CA? Aspire’s mission calls us to deliver College for Certain to underserved children, while partnering with  local school systems to spark transformative change. These goals have become increasingly difficult in California due to the state budget crisis. Though growth here is not currently possible, our drive to serve the millions of low-income students trapped in failing schools remains as strong as ever.  Therefore, we are looking to new states with high levels of need where the conditions are right for us to extend our impact and drive change.

Why is Aspire expanding to Memphis? Aspire selected Memphis because of its high level of need, its favorable political climate, its existing momentum for reform, its emerging role in the national education dialogue, and the long term stability of all of these elements over time. Memphis also offers strong support from local leaders who are committed to our success there.

Will Aspire expand to other places? Not in the short-term. Though other cities have expressed high levels of demand for Aspire, we will only open in one new city in school year 2013-2014. We will continue to explore partnerships with other cities down the road. We also remain committed to sharing our best practices with other school systems, no matter where they are located.

Is Aspire leaving California? No, Aspire is not leaving California. We remain committed to our 34 California schools and 12,000 California students. We will add 1,500 more students as our current schools grow to scale. We were founded in California, and our roots are deep here. We know that success in any other state depends on the ongoing strength of our current schools, the backbone of our model.

Updated 9 April 2012:

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2012/04/05/MNQ61NURUC.DTL&type=education

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