Sad In(deed)

The common comparison to business and education is oil and water as  oil is immiscible in water.  The reality  is much more complex. Business and education are more akin to taking sludge from a landfill, adding it to  water  and wondering why nothing grows.  If the sludge has nothing living in it and can not photosynthesize food, it can not live and grow. Business people lack the understanding of why you need to start with something living and feed it or expect the organism to photosynthesize. What a business person sees is some dirt which they wish to monetize if they could just force it to grow……

A business person will do everything in their power to force the sludge to grow, in spite of every scientist stating it can not happen. Business people hire marketing teams and business development specialists who tell them to ‘plant trees’ and the sludge kills off the forest and then some. The board  will then hire more marketing and business development people (who tell them to plant different trees) and the routine continues as they make money off the planted trees while they stay alive.The problem of the murkiness in the water eludes them. Instead of talking to a scientist, they make up explanations and continue to believe they can sell their idea.

The best marketing, business development and sales teams are those which can help in suspending belief long enough for the business to metaphorically grow and be sold.

Not all businesses in education function this way. It is the indiscriminate use of resources which fails the business idea, not the fact it is related to education.  The resources are misappropriated as a business person can not logistically interact with an educator under any pretense other than money. An educator generally commodifies education as a process, journey, undertaking for life which has no explicit monetary value. In fact, education is seen as its own reward to most educators.

The best example I have of where business and education mixed to make something wonderful: Khan Academy. The dream started so small and became something so large AND the money followed instead of directed what Khan Academy did as an organizations.

My experiences of businesses and education have proven  out. at least twice, they do not work together and in fact, business is toxic to education. In addition, all I have to do is read the news about for profit schools and feel equally nauseated.

I have been involved with organizations who have knowingly done the type of ‘deal’ where they even obtained not for profit status, as if this would some how cleanse the soil, so to speak. Aspire Public Schools, a charter school venture and now Wyzant, an online tutoring site which decided to walk down Wall St. with Accel Partners have both attempted to grow the trees and neither one has a forest worthy of even making toothpicks.

Aspire Public Schools has used taxpayer money and investment money to mis-educate children under a premise they could never demonstrate as advertised/marketed when they began. They have not been able to do anything substantially different from any other public school, including getting kids THROUGH college to graduation. In the case of Aspire Public Schools, what is so insidious is the level at which they have marketed their program to the most dis-enfranchised and have not delivered.  In the case of Wyzant, I have hopes they will catch on to what will be part of their reputation if they do not right the ship.

Both organizations in my example were founded by people with a simple-minded and limited view of education.  In the case of Aspire, almost anyone of any worth ran far and fast from being affiliated with them.  This includes Stanford University and many people, such as myself, who taught at Aspire under what were found to be false pretenses. This involves professors from universities and principals/administrators who were misled.

With Wyzant, it was not until Accel Partners came in and laid down the behavior expected that things became turbid.  There was some degree of transparency and trees were being planted. Accel Partners ruined that by convincing Mike and Drew they could ‘sell out’. What started as something which may have had (I am not sure) some degree of morality, became a system to make a profit off of students and their families.

Wyzant went from allowing anyone access to a variety of tutors at different price points, even those of us who take on students and reduce price in many situations and try to work out a deal, to a system where Wyzant selects tutors who are at lower commission splits unless the consumer is SAVVY enough to do their own computer search and apply to different tutors.  By directing clients to these tutors, the vulnerable students/parents are given what Wyzant has not yet been able to shape or form with sufficient reviews and other metrics. This means in many instances, the student(s) are not getting the ‘best’ possible tutors, rather, they are getting the tutors which are profitable to Wyzant.

At first I thought this situation was unique to me. Then, suddenly, something which had been long brewing – allowing tutors to have access to one another, happened. We began to share our stories and found out we were all experiencing similar issues.

Amazingly, with the openness of the social media (LinkedIn) conversation, not once has Wyzant flinched at this conversation and probably has no intention of doing anything as they are happy to be rid of those of us who obtain too much of their asset pie. The real issue is, those of us who stuck around are the ones with the good reputation, the outstanding work with students and the tutors who are so much more than Kaplan and Mathnasium storefronts, etc.

Once you lose your reputation, it is a challenge to regain it. In the meanwhile, those of us who stick with Wyzant end up carrying the burden of their poor business decisions and some icky moral/ethical baggage.


Dear Ms. Rhee 29 August 2012

Dear Ms. Rhee,

I write to you often but I am not even sure you pay attention as you have never responded. If you responded, I would be shocked as it would mean you had to deal with facts which were presented. Since you are more inclined to manipulate facts, I am not expecting responses any time soon.

So, it would appear that Aspire Public Schools has taken a page, well maybe a chapter from the playbook of  regular public schools. This is not the first time I caught the problem; I have addressed this issue at other junctures. I just keep pointing out the facts so that you don’t lose track of them as you campaign against teachers. is the URL I used on 29 August 2012 to check that once again, Aspire was exceeding what a regular public school would be doing at this time in the school year as Aspire indicates IT IS SUPERIOR to what is down the street.

Here is what I found at 10:45 AM-

12 open teaching positions, including the sciences and language arts K-12 AND things such as music, Gr 9-12, journalism and so forth. This did not include the four open substitute position postings or the Dean of Educational Capacity (clearly a name for a position which is  in no way living up to its potential), two HR managers (assumedly it is their job to find the teachers to fill the classrooms), three residency campus recruiters (to find even more teachers to fill classrooms), five substitute positions-one of which was long-term, college readiness teacher (who knew that Aspire needed a teacher to do the task of a counselor….), Senior Manager of Talent (apparently also responsible for filling empty classrooms), two recruiters…. to find teachers which the residency campus recruiters could not find??, and two SPED teachers. I did not list every open position as I pretty much matched My true love gave to me (sung to the 12 Days of Christmas) chorus usually reserved for public schools.

And so I begin to ask myself the following questions, in no particular order:

(1) There is 8.5% unemployment in the U.S. (rhetorical of course as the RNC has been bandying this about for weeks).

(2) Why don’t teachers wish to work for a charter school (Aspire is not the only gig in town, just the most self promoted in CA and now TN)?

(3) How is Aspire’s problem different from regular public schools as charter schools are supposed to be better and these numbers of empty positions after school has started indicate equal to or worse than.

(4) Why are my tax dollars paying for this unacceptable level of administration of an education program and why is Aspire not shut down when it is NOT meeting its own goals?

(5) Does anyone else know or am I the only person  who has an actual interest in education?

(6) Did Ms. Rhee or James Wilcox ever manage to read “The First Days of School” by Harry K. Wong (the supposed handbook Aspire support(s)/supported?

The list continued, however it became general reflection as to why I still believe charter schools are not an answer to what ails the American education system.

I know you like the word anomaly and use it to explain data which you are unable to manipulate to your liking so I understand you might wish to use it in this example. My problem is that something is an anomaly when it happens once or rarely  (deviation from the common rule)- not regularly so it is not appropriate this time….the problem(s) cited above are regular and ongoing.

Looking forward to hearing from you.

While you were all looking at test scores and Michelle Rhee was blaming teachers……..

The above item would have flown right under the radar had some one not pointed it out to me. It would not have even occurred to me that this would be an Aspire Public Schools issue.  Of course, I gave Aspire the benefit of the doubt and looked at and as I believe all parties should have an opportunity to weigh in on the subject.

From what I can gather, Fitch sees Aspire as being not transparent enough. From what I read about (written by others), Aspire refuses to be honest, which has nothing to do with tenure or all the other rigamarow Ms. Rhee constantly complains about.  Aspire seems to be anti-competitive, which is anti-Michelle Rhee and anti-Jeffrey Canada. This all makes for some interesting conversation.  I can find no mention of the bond issue nor the lawsuit issue.  No where can I find Michelle Rhee’s commentary………so I will leave the interpretation of all of this to the reader.

This demonstrates to me once again that charter schools have been so busy marketing and touting themselves that reality never had a chance. Aspire is a not for profit CORPORATION. By reasonable standards, people should be flinching about the lack of competitiveness Aspire Public Schools operates under.  The message may well be that test scores really do not tell the whole story, even though Aspire and Michelle Rhee would have us believe otherwise with propaganda.

This is Aspire 15 years out. I have to wonder if this is what Don Shalvey, James Wilcox, Wayne Hilty and Elise Darwish prepared for in advance and escaping to Tennessee is not the entire answer. It would seem that abandoning  part or all they sought to change in CA is definitely not a good answer for students, investors and  public education.  With Wall St. having brought down the economy,  limited and insufficient disclosure to Fitch does not seem to be in line with what the public would like to know.


Under the bonds’ continuing disclosure agreement, the lawsuit does not       appear to qualify as a ‘significant event.’ However, given Aspire’s significant concerns regarding the lawsuit, Fitch views the lack of       communication until after the proposed statement of decision negatively.       In addition, the March 21, 2012 disclosure statement made no reference   to the serious risks, including possible default, cited by management in       its declarations to the court.

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for June 8. Fitch will   continue to monitor developments in the lawsuit and their potential   ramifications for bondholders.

Of course the real concern is how did these people NOT have an appropriate long term business plan in place knowing CA politics?  What are the board of directors thinking? I have to wonder if even Superman can make this better considering charter schools have touted that their composition is based on their ability to do it better for less.  Jeffrey Canada, are you paying attention?

What happens when charter schools really can not do it on the same budget as public schools…..

Please note some things: (1) The blame is on the ‘adults’ (teachers) in this example and all the extra people Aspire required to suss out money (2) Aspire originally started out by stating they would STAY in CA….I guess they will be changing what they are really looking to do as a non-profit. Based on The Lion’s Aspiration from 2004 marketing materials, the ultimate goal was TO TIP CALIFORNIA. (3) Aspire found out that public schools (all the ones who just can not up and leave CA as the students are HERE) really are struggling with budgets.  Aspire PROMISED they could do better than any other public school in CA based on same finances, which is why principals were allowed to ‘manage’ their budget.  (4) It is almost impossible to believe the ‘need’ is more substantial in Nashville then Central California but apparently poverty is different(ly) funded in Tennessee.

Rosa Parks did something special in 1955. Most people would say it was something BIG.  In 1955, in my home state of Alabama, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus. It was small action that rippled far and wide. When she got on that bus that day, I’m sure she knew it would be important, but most people (maybe even her) didn’t realize how important.  What she did was HISTORIC, and when we look back at the times we’re in now at Aspire, we will say the same thing.  What may appear merely important, is BIG. And it is for all of us—especially the 12,000 students we serve together and the team around us every day.

We are expanding beyond California, and we’ll first go to a place where the need is deeper than most people can imagine.  Memphis has one of the highest concentrations of poverty and one of the lowest performing school systems in the country. The work we will do there will make another loud statement to everyone who cares about kids, our country, and the foundation that our public schools represent for the future. It will be as loud as the statement we’ve made in CA from Sacramento to LA, from Stockton to the Bay.  Our kids aren’t the issue.  Nor is it “our schools.” We, the adults, need to serve them better, and eliminate all of the obstacles that keep us from doing exactly that.

When I think about our work today, and the 12,000 lives in our care every minute, every day, I know that this action– going to Memphis—is bpth small and BIG.  Going to another state will make another loud statement about what we know is possible. It will ripple far and wide, much like the ripples that moved across the South and our country when a 42 year old Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus.  What started with a small action, moved to a boycott, and grew to be a BIG movement that literally moved our country.  I don’t pretend that our schools in Memphis will be as historic as that simple action on cold day in Montgomery in 1955—but it will be important. It is historic for our organization, and it is BIG…even though for some time it will feel small.

This decision to expand to Memphis is part of a much bigger, longer term process to take control of our future. It sets us on a new path; a path that is as focused as ever on our kids here at home, and a path where we will be—over time—less at the mercy of a state that’s lost its way and forgotten that our public schools dictate our future. I want to share a few of the reasons why this small step, is BIG and IMPORTANT in many ways for all of us…both in the near term, and the medium term.

In the near term:

– Keep the funding we have that pays for the support our schools and our students share: today these funders pay for about $5M-$6M per year in support of our schools and our kids. From counselors to college classes, from coaches to our Residency program, from our Godzilla team to our payroll team, they pay the bill that our schools can’t afford to pay. With this decision to open schools in a place where public funding is sufficient to pay for the support they require, we can serve more students and likely keep this private funding in place.

– Keep growth opportunities for our team: many, many people in our organization are interested in new professional growth opportunities, whether it’s a chance to be a mentor teacher, a coach, a lead teacher, a principal, or a role at the Home Office.  When we continue to grow, these opportunities are created.  The chance to continue to grow, and take on new and different things, grows with our organization.

In the medium/longer term, the expansion is just as BIG, and IMPORTANT:

– New ways to get help for California, based on new and national impact:  with growth in a national hot spot for education reform like Memphis, we enter into a new realm with our supporters.  The highest performing, large CMO that leads in so many ways (us), is now part of a team in a place where policy, funding, federal, and state policy are aligned to do incredible work for kids—redefining what it means when we say “serve all kids well” and actually make strides towards doing it.  Coupled with the incredibly deep need in Memphis, and the history of a place known for an assassination that shook our country, and decades upon decades of poverty, racism, and “forgotteness,” it is a historic confluence of events. With our presence there, we have the ability to ask (and expect to be heard) for new ways and new sources of HELP for California.  One important one is what I’ve called “paying down our mortgage” or at least refinancing it.  Because we are able to help create great schools where our impact will ripple far and wide, we have our best shot to get a bold request filled…refinance “our mortgage” for our schools, and help us take dollars we pay today in interest payments, and give it to our team.

– Attract more funders, because we’re doing work “nationally” in more than one state: the fact that we are present in another state puts us on the national radar in a compelling way that may not seem appropriate given our success and scale in California—but it is real.  This national level of work helps us attract new partners and funders.

– More oars rowing, not the same boat…but a bigger boat: Just like our long time strategy in California, when we open more schools we’re able to offer more and better support for everyone. Think about Godzilla, our IT team, and others. When we were just a few schools, we didn’t have these things—ask the 7 and 10 year Aspire veterans and they’ll tell you.  Until this budget crisis, serving more students well meant better support for every school, and over time it meant the support our schools received cost even less.  Growth over time, in Memphis, will make this true again.  Over time we can shift to raising money for what we want for our kids, not just the basic needs we know they (and we) have.  This will take time, but it will again be true.

So what does all this mean for pay and compensation, James? Plain and simple, it’s unclear.  But know this—I go to bed every night thinking about our team, our sacrifices, and our determination. And it makes me ever more determined to make progress.  This remains a top priority, and our commitment to 75% of every dollar and recovery going to compensation remains strong (the last 25% goes to rebuilding our reserves). Over the next few months, we’ll get more clarity on projected funding rates for this year (yes, we still don’t know), and for the next school year. As soon as we know what they are, we’ll know what they mean for compensation.

To close, I am incredibly proud of what Memphis represents for all of us and our kids in every Aspire school.  It is a small, IMPORTANT, and BIG thing…all at the same time.  Like Rosa Parks, we are sitting down in the front of the bus…and the ripples from this decision will be both direct and indirect for all us, and for our kids.  Wait and see.   Here’s to all of us, and the work we do every day in spite of the odds and the challenges.  We’re changing futures and life opportunities for thousands…together.

And together we can, and will continue to do exactly that.

James Wilcox

Updated 25 April 2012:

Bullying at school – when administrators master it and then look the other way

Yesterday morning as I was doing work at home I listened in on the discussion Michael Krasney on NPR was having with a variety of people on his show regarding bullying.  While bullying seems to be the new ‘in’ word to describe bad behavior, there is nothing new about it, most especially at schools.  If anything, bullying has become a tour de force set of behaviors that have only gotten the attention or notice deserved because of the most recent suicides and physical/emotional issues seeing the light of day.  In the past, it was almost unconscionable to talk about bullying, much like child or spousal abuse. Finally we are not stumbling over the carnage, we are addressing a very real issue affecting both students at school, the adults who work at the school and society at large.

As I listened to to various callers, I could not help but well up and cry. I had not been bullied in any substantial way as a child, rather just the generic kids being kids being obnoxious behavior. Perhaps that is why as an adult it was so darn difficult to see the bullying happening to me and around me when I taught at Cal Prep (Aspire Public Schools) in Oakland, CA.

As a teacher at Cal Prep, I watched an 8th Grader , D,  beat up a 3rd Grader from Berkley Maynard at break. He was back at school a couple days later as the then principal wanted to ‘work things out’ since this particular student, although violent, scored high on tests. In my classroom, I had 7th Grade males calling one female, who shall go by J, double D.  At first I thought they may have been talking about a rapper and gave it the benefit of the doubt as J said it was okay. When it persisted and I knew it related to breast size, of which this student was large, I put the kabosh on – or at least I thought I did. The principal felt I was too caught up in the name calling taunts and needed to back off so the boys would stop.  I had a student who hated gays/fags and made it quite clear at PE. I called in the parents. The parents were all over it and took the student to task.  The principal again felt that it was just a typical behavior from these types of kids and to lay off and they would stop.  The group in charge of being the real discipline or guards at the school just happened to be some of the employees from The Black Muslim Brotherhood.

In a staff meeting, myself and another teacher stated we felt ishy about the school guards. I was later told by the principal in private that I needed to better understand the community I was serving, as in I am white, a portion of the community is black and essentially I was racist.  I later found out the uncomfortable feeling I had was because the school guards were ex cons and pretty much everyone in Oakland had an issue with them, black, white or other.

To add insult to the various physical and emotional injuries going on around me with students,  other teachers and myself were abused by the principal and administrative staff (V P’s) of Aspire Public Schools.  I was ultimately tormented for being exhausted and anemic (the precursors to needing a hysterectomy) because I was ‘letting down my colleagues’  and then needing surgery – the hysterectomy, which could have interfered with school testing because it could require 4-6 weeks of me beingh out of work. I was denied the help to pack up my classroom or unpack it, both with written medical requests from  the surgeon at Kaiser Permanente because the school was running low on funds and I just needed to figure it out.  At the same time I was being tormented, another teacher who had a reoccurence of breast cancer was similarly being tormented and ultimately fired. I chose to leave from the pervasive and continuous harrassment so according to FEHA rules and regulations, I made an admission of guilt to my poor teaching due to exhaustion/anemia, in spite of everything else going on around me and was with an employer who used an at will contract.  Another teacher (also a professor at Cal Berkeley) was physically and emotionally abused by the principal.  The teacher with breast cancer won an out of court settlement so it did not need to go to trial (Lawless and Lawless). The professor compelled UC Berkeley to take appropriate action. I was left high and dry because technically, I could be let go for wearing the wrong color dress (at will contract).  Another employee at our school who was diabetic, was regularly scorned and not allowed appropriate nutrition breaks.  And yet two other employees were variously asked to schedule ‘differntly’ their  medical appointments so it did not get in the way of the flow of the school as it was difficult to find substitute teachers/coverage.

In addition, the professors from the education department at UC Berkeley who were brought in as consultants, knew what was going on both with students and staff and let it pass. They did not want to get caught up in the politics.  Parents, one of which is an administrator at UC Berkeley, one an employee at the law library were allowed without compunction to hassle the teaching staff in a vareity of e-mails as they were on the school board and the principal wanted very badly to have good PR with these two parents.

At the point I quit, my family and friends were astounded by how willing I had been to accept the abuse for myself and possibly believe the principal might be right.  It took a while to understand I had been badly bullied by the principal, Aspire Public Schools, parents and my reaction was pretty reasonable considering the situation.  I was overcome with a horrible sense of guilt rather than realizing I was only trying to protect myself.

Not only was I witness to bullying being perpatrated and tolerated at the school, it was used on me and at least three other teachers quite effectively so the principal could exercise his ego.  The principal was promoted, another one came in.  Aspire calls all of this a learning experience. They are so good at bullying they can even put it in a nice package and hand it to you.

Update:   22 October 2010,8599,2026632,00.html

The end result is a educational leadership system that baffles people in the private as well as the public sector.
 The Army “is very clearly up or out,” says James Wilcox, a former Army officer and Blackhawk helicopter pilot who is now CEO of Aspire Public Schools, a network of high-performing charter schools in California.
 But in public schools, he says, “it’s up and stay.”
All of this would be easier to digest if I did not have the paperwork including a lawsuit against my previous principal, my FEHA/EEOC paperwork against my past principal and Aspire Public schools and know about my previous principals promotion out of the school to the administrative offices of Aspire Public Schools.  Aspire is no different than public schools, they just use different names and meanings in the same way Michelle Rhee practices anomoly theory.