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

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:


Charter Schools vs. SPED – seems like same accountability as Wall St.

This blog is dedicated to Tres Whitlock in Florida. Due to confidentiality issues, I could only use his name if he and his family chose to come forward with using it.  Thank you Tres for going public!

Sometimes even when you watch a magic trick 100 times, you don’t catch the nuance of what is going on and that is what makes magic cool, fun and exciting. Clearly most of us would rather watch Criss Angel, Cirque Du Soleil, etc. than attend a meeting as our brains enjoy this brief time away from reality.  When the artifice of ‘magic’ is used to balance the books, it is still time away from reality. The difference is what happens on Wall St. and in schools should not be ‘magical’ and should not require hundreds of observations to understand. REIT’s, reverse whatevers, funky non-descript mutual funds,  Ponzi Schemes and so forth should not be allowed and yet Wall St. persists in just finding new and different ways to develop mysterious/magical money-making behavior. Alas, so do charter schools.  The magic is in just making something tricky enough to over-ride logic in the brain.  On Wall St. people merely lose money – in charter schools, children lose an education. There is a fair degree of difference.

This morning on NPR I listened to and then read about a  bit of ‘magic’ in  some Mimi-Dade, Florida charter schools and then decided to match up my own past experiences.  I have complained about the absence of special ed services at charter schools since I taught at one and the ‘magical’ absence of services did not appeal to me (my undergrad is speech pathology).  When I addressed the discrepancy (sorry, confidentiality rules do not allow me to use the child’s name), my principal was upset but tried to explain it as a kink that would later get fixed and for now, just focus on test scores. You catch the drift of the experience.

I looked up the NPR piece first and then decided to just do a random search to see if the topic was being covered in the news beyond NPR. NPR is an arbiter of high quality journalism so I always look to support the research and appeal to as many people as possible.

NPR had some interesting information based on some interesting people who had been interviewed.

The Florida Department of Education, citing privacy concerns, declined to provide statewide data of students with severe disabilities. But the agency said their analysis shows 86 percent of charter schools statewide had no students with severe disabilities.

It’s a trend repeated in California, Louisiana, New York and Texas, according to researchers from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Harvard University researcher Thomas Hehir calls it a “pattern of exclusion” among charter schools nationally. Hehir was the top special education official during the Clinton administration and played a leading role in rewriting the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

He says it comes down to money.

“That is unfortunately what we find in altogether too many places,” Hehir said. “I think that there is a disincentive to enroll these kids because they cost more money to educate.”

The Miami Herald had more and different details:

My look at gave another view. I was looking to see if all the SPED services necessary were being provided to students at charter schools in my area. I know that SPED services are lacking in all the regular public schools, however, the regular public schools educate everyone.   It would seem some one should be monitoring the charter schools in my area and declining payment as was done in Miami-Dade yet the lobbying group named Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools does not believe money should be denied for non-compliance.  This is called the joy of magical thinking without repercussions.

Without these monthly payments, the charter schools will likely struggle to  keep the doors open, said Lynn Norman Teck, a spokeswoman for the Florida  Consortium of Public Charter Schools, a lobbying group and membership  association. She said some Florida charter schools have had compliance issues in  the past, but continued receiving their monthly checks.

“The consortium wants its member schools to do things right,” she said. “But  we don’t feel that funds should be withheld.”

Read more:  14 December 2011  10:25 AM viewing

SPED open positions with Aspire Public Schools in bay area of N. Ca:

12/7/2011 full-time SPED teacher mild/moderate,  full-time speech pathologist, part-time SPED teacher mild/moderate, 12/6/2011 SPED instructional assistant, 8/2/2011  counseling intern  14 December 2011  10:25 AM viewing

SPED position with KIPP in bay area of N. Ca:

12/6/2011 director of SPED  14 December 2011  10:25 AM viewing

SPED position with Leadership Public Schools in bay area of N. Ca:

10/27/2011 RSP teacher

In Tres’ case, he needs supervision to attend to bodily functions and is cognitively able to perform and function.  He may seem to be on the outer ‘extreme’ of SPED and yet the reality is that charter schools have a special loophole to deny any SPED kid an education (quotes are from NPR):

But there’s a loophole. Where special education students attend school is determined by their Individual Education Plan (IEP). That plan is developed by the student, parents, school officials and therapists.

The IEP team won’t send that student to a charter school that isn’t set up to serve disabled students.

School districts design a systemic plan to educate students with disabilities. Charter schools do not. Their solution is often to refer students back to the traditional public schools — as happened to Tres Whitlock.

If parents choose to decline the IEP, a child can and often does go to a charter school because charter schools have a habit of marketing their magical miracles.  In my experience, SPED students had ‘modified’ IEP’s…..which is kind of like a modified REIT on Wall St.

No, education for ‘all’ in charter schools is not equal nor fair but it is magical (thinking).  When the data is evaluated on an even playing field, even the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is able to observe the disparity.

NB: Charter schools are public, not for profit (unless noted as for profit) corporations. They must abide by all local, state and federal education laws and they receive ADA (our tax dollars) to run. Charter schools may do fund-raising and write grants, however this does not make them a magnet school or preclude them to be selective in the students which attend.  Since charter schools do not educate ‘all types’ of children, they are not actually public schools. Charter schools complain as they must rely on district resources so they are not able to comply due to being a small school, etc……if they can not measure up to being a public school and serve all students, they should not be called a public school, no matter how they market themselves.

Update on 2 April 2012:   please read to end to see details regarding SPED students.