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:


CA Adopts National Standards and the Crowd Goes Mad Over the Wrong Issue

Until today I was perhaps too naive in what I thought people outside education understood regarding curriculum and standards.   I actually thought with all the news surrounding NCLB over the years and The Race to the Top and test score issues, the public actually understood what is a curriculum, what are standards and how teachers go about their business.   So, I will try to elucidate  items so the general, non education public can indeed have real discourse surrounding the correct topic(s) and not the ancillary pieces.

To begin, I will create a range of computer accessible URL’s for people to read and create a deeper understanding of the vocabulary I will be using.  I do not believe I could do justice to the meaning of curriculum in a couple paragraphs considering I went to graduate school to study only science curriculum in a narrow vein.  It is imperative for people to understand the broad scope of a curriculum and what it means in context.

curriculum , , .

standards , , (this is what I am most familiar with in the context of my education)

text book , ,

A curriculum which is selected in a public school tends to have both breadth and depth.  This means, as an example in math, students learn the meaning of numeracy, can apply the knowledge of how multiplication is short hand for repitive addition and explore the value of understanding exponential form in a curve in calculus.  That sentence is broad  merely in the relationship of numbers and their meaning. The depth depends upon the various uses of the numbers.  Numeracy can be shallow in kindergarden and deep as the Mariana Trench in Graduate School.  It is imperative that there is good understanding of numeracy and its applications across each grade level and in some respects age appropriateness, which varies greatly as all children learn at slightly different rates.

The standards by which students are judged (or more recently teachers) has to do with a students ability to both understand and apply mathematical concepts by grade level/age appropriate tasks (please read about Piaget for more detailed information on the difference of grade versus age issues) as shown in a variety of tools of demonstration – tests, projects, etc.  A minimum standard of proficiency is in a round about way a  qualitative measure of a students ability to move to the next concept/application of knowledge.   Sadly to the public, knowledge and learning are not linear. Students have a-ha moments all the time (even teachers) when we think about an idea/concept in a new way (creativity).  Due to this issue, standards are a quantitative registration of what is generally agreed upon by professional educators as an ability/skill a student can adequately perform at a specific age/grade and move on to something more complex. It is at best an imprecise measure as it is a bit like pulling a carrot out of the soil, stating it is growing but not knowing  how much potential is left and no way to measure how the seed (considering the myriad environmental factors) will grow to full form, if it will grow to an edible food or if  environmental factors will render it something to be plowed under (sorry to be so graphic).

A text book is a TOOL for teaching.  A text book works on the idea of putting specific curricular ideas in an order (which may or may not be palatable to a particular learning style), giving sets of idea explorations which are supposed to be age/grade appropriate and provide tests with a minimum standard of understanding so the student and teacher know when it is time to move on to the next concept.  A text book is NOT A CURRICULUM.   With the aforementioned in mind, only new and/or inexperienced teachers use a text book as the ‘curriculum’.

  Experienced teachers will have either a classroom library with 20 ways until Sunday to explain an idea/concept, know another 10 ways until Sunday to demonstrate the idea/concept (and be willing to learn more – professional development).  Experienced teachers see the text book as one tool among many to assist students in learning to a minimum standard of understanding.   Experienced teachers go to places such as RAFT ( to learn how to get past only 10 ways of demonstrating an idea/concept.  Experienced teachers are perpetually learning (hence, lifelong learners) as they seek to find a new way to assist their students in the development of understanding.

When I read comments, such as those in The San Francisco Chronicle, I am shocked at the mixed up nature of what people are talking about.   This helps me understand how the public does not understand the process and is unable to engage in ways to change the process.  It points out all the misconceptions surrounding what happens in a classroom and why people are so willing to castigate teachers for problems.

I encourage all of you to please read up on the process of education.  When you are better informed, your comments will speak to the point of what needs to be changed.

Living One Week on the Spectrum Side of Life

When I first moved back to the U.S. from living abroad, I ‘traded’ in kind housing for re-writing and helping to better implement an IEP for a 12 year old on the autism spectrum.  It was my first time outside the classroom ‘observing’ what teachers do (I have been a teacher for 20 years and always a member of the student study team), what was not going on in the classroom, at the school or with divorced parents and how it manifested itself for this child.  I found out that not all teachers or schools are as committed to working with special needs students as I had hoped.

I am still in contact with this family and am called to consult for various IEP related items. The parents thought it would be great for their child to visit with me for one week as a ‘respite’ for them.  Since I was a teacher, understood autism and could maintain order,  the child had a connection with me and I had the free time, this was arranged.  It was an amazing learning experience and, much like my Peace Corps experience, I believe I gained more from it than the child who visited me.

One of the most gut wrenching experiences for me and the one which made me cry one night was when this child explained to me they could not understand if I was upset/angry.  The child had put some flowers in a book they were borrowing from me to do a drawing for a mosaic project. The child closed the book with the fresh flowers in it and the flowers mushed, essentially ruining the art on two pages. I explained that by not following directions, this was the result and we would not be going for the outdoor movie show by the bay that evening but instead would stay in and play cards. The child knew I was upset/disappointed on some level but ultimately told me that since I do not raise my voice when I am upset, it was hard for them to understand.  This amazed me as anyone who knows me would point blank state they can read my face with no need for verbal cues whatsoever to know what I am thinking. I have worked with special needs students before and this has never been an issue. I decided the best thing to do was sit down and show my happy/normal face and then my upset/sad/angry face so the child could see the difference. It worked and things flowed better after that. It made me realize how difficult it must be to navigate a world where even an ’emotional’ face could not help with all the information necessary to navigate social interactions.

During the week we went to The Exploratorium, The Tech Museum, cruise around the harbor, cable cars all over and The Aquarium of the Bay. In addition, this child went with me to RAFT as I prepped for a class to be delivered in another week and I thought they would enjoy ‘shopping’ at the mega rich creative RAFT warehouse but found out it was instead overwhelming.  Our afternoon during lab hours at the Mosaic Institute in Oakland was outstanding and the biggest success of all our activities. The student completed a jellyfish picture that was artistically well done in spite of this being their first experience with this media.

We volunteered at Ploughshares Nursery where I volunteer regularly, we spent time at the beach on the Alameda side of the bay and cooked our own meals. I learned that this child would only have turkey slices on a sandwich, not chicken – chicken was for salads, stir fry, etc.  Organic American Cheese slices from Trader Joes were THE CHEESE and in certain food situations had to be made into triangles.  Meals were ritualistic and there was a very specific order to things from the way vitamins were taken to having tea.

The one thing that seemed to leave the largest impact of all, which would have never occurred to me as being significant, was the free box that ended up being put down in the lobby of my building.  Apparently some neighbors were unpacking after their move and had random things to shed – a couple vases, some wrist bands, books, a metal box – all the usual stuff from after a move.  The child loved this box as it seemed to magically gain more goods at random intervals from when we left in the morning or after a couple days.  This provoked a whole conversation regarding the purposefulness of a free box, did I ever contribute to a free box, did I ever take anything from a free box, did I have anything I needed to add to the free box right now and so on.

As you might imagine, the week was a whole new exploration for me in education, ‘parenting’/babysitting/nannying, the conundrum of life and the larger questions of why I enjoy teaching.  It was emotional, thought provoking, stimulating, frustrating as all get out and amazingly rewarding. I am thankful for this incredible opportunity.

After I took this child back to the airport and the child was safely on the plane home, I went out and bought some hard apple cider and a package of chocolate fudge pop-tarts. I had maxed my limit and just needed the rush of an over the top bad carb fix. It is now a week later. I am still reflecting on all I learned. I added some things to the free box in the lobby and took two things out. My life has been altered and I gained much as a teacher and as a member of society.

I’m in a State of Matter State of Mind

In a month and a half I am doing a workshop at RAFT (Resource Area For Teaching) where I used to work.  I was invited to do a two day hands on workshop with Erik Welker (who still works at RAFT) as the two of us are always up to good learning mischief when we work together.  We chose kitchen science, Rube Goldberg and all manner of energy transfers, photosynthesis (extrapolate a good way to teach photosynthesis drawing  on The Harvard Study called Private Universe) and of course, insects.

Part of the inspiration for this workshop is how to actually ‘DO’ science as oppossed to viewing science in a text book or on line or merely writing about reading something without actually doing something.  The class is to be for multiple grade levels (Gr 4 and above) and have teacher appeal as the workshop is for teachers.  One of the greatest joys of RAFT is the ability to do a workshop not based on a specific mapped out, written out, detailed to the nth degree lesson plan. RAFT allows for, expects and endorses  presenting a related  series of concepts which are supported with purposeful rationale (always related to the standards), prevent science misconceptions (to the best of the ability of Eric and myself), and have fun.  Anyone who finds fault with all of that must be affiliated with a textbook company.

As a general rule of thumb, Eric and myself plan out a rough outline and make sure to incorporate Idea Sheets from RAFT. We meet and organize the flow (although it always seems to be over planned and goes well organically, we just have organizational control issues), we meet again to do materials procurement – which, being at RAFT is better than shopping for food, books or things in a hardware store (my personal favorites) and then, in the end, put together useful resources to support what we are presenting.  We organize a HUGE subject specific library of materials, web sites and sources in the hopes that our enthusiasm about what we teach will possibly spill over to others.  It is a fun process and it makes us THINK – something we both enjoy and RAFT also encourages. 

I was in the ‘thinking’ process today which created this blog.   I was just finishing Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott (a great fictional work on Isaac Newton, alchemy and the ties which bind scientists together…) when I had to begin the process of listing resources for cooking science and states of matter.  Rebecca’s book goes back to the 17th Century and dwells upon what Newton was doing as he sorted out light, color, gravity, the beginnings of calculus and so on by using scientific method and observation.  What I found interesting was that even with the limited tools, technology and capacity to test out ideas, Newton was far ahead of some things currently in text books and on line about matter, its various states and how misconceptions are handed down.  I started to feel like the alchemists apprentice as I waded through various on line sources and became critical or what I was observing as ‘interactive’.  Newton may have been proud, however, I fear there will be (there always are) some people who think I am a bit nutty for being critical of how science concepts are presented in 2-D.  To my defense, I am a credentialed teacher with a graduate degree so I think I am entitled to voice my opinion on science materials, so here goes:

Are there more states of matter if you are studying science in college?  I ask this as you have a choice when you do a Google search of 3, 4 or 5 states of matter.  I get the three – liquid, solid and gas but really believe in the four, which includes plasma.  I absolutely believe in the possibility of a fifth state.  I can not justify teaching K-3 students three phases of matter and adding – I know it needs to be addressed, if nothing else to remove the doubt that the fourth state of matter is not in your flat screen TV, so to speak.  I hesitate to view websites that only address three states and are aligned to text books. We can talk about the fourth state and simply say, “You will learn more about what it is and how it works as your science ability improves, but there are four states of matter”.  The equivalent would be to merely teach children matter is matter and that there are not many types of matter, which they can tell at a relatively early age are different by color, smell, taste, sound,etc.  My rotten tomatoes list for this category goes out to almost all text books and the following websites:,,,,,,  and it continues on, I just did not feel I had the space to go past page two of my Google Search.  I am unsure if the people who put together the books or the web sources listed do not themselves know there are four states of matter or they thought it may be humerous for kids to find out the adults were only kidding when they said there were three phases?

Complaint two – you can not learn states of matter from a book or an interactive website – no matter how interactive. A kid actually needs to touch, visualize and observe.  Please, if you are a science teacher, let go of the book, it is bad for your students.  What makes me curious is how some one might believe it is okay to learn science via a book or computer and be competent enough to work for NASA or be a neurosurgeon.  It just does not work that way – people who practice science quite literally do science.

Complaint three – states of matter online – NO matter actually stops its motion and matter has not been observed to stop motion as science does not yet have the ability to view the atoms at this cold level- this is known as a physics thought concept.  Matter moves, it just moves less the closer it gets to its absolute state of frozen-ness.  Even though I don’t have a TV (apparently the height of all knowledge being passed on), I heard this factoid on NPR and followed it up. NPR was correct.  The following websites demonstrate solids having NO motion.   At least NOVA got this correct in a truly fun manner. Kudos to their web development team and the educators supporting them. 

I keep hoping that the same people who voiced concern about what kids were watching on TV and listening to on the radio will voice concern about the content their children are being fed.  In my mind, I see a parent committee that would give out something like Michelin Stars to web sites for the accuracy of the information they are conveying and give a rating for relative level of concept, rather than grade level or age since we all know humans learn at different rates. 

We still have not recovered from the debacle of the American Dairy Association ‘teaching’ us there were four food groups so they could better market their products.  Since we have begun to scrutinize what we eat as we realize it has an effect on our physical and mental well being, we should scrutinize what we teach children so we can break down the barriers.  Misconceptions create difficult situations for students to overcome and slow learning down.

I would like to give a huge shout out to my parents who always encourage me to ask questions and juggle two or more ideas in my head at the same time in order to reach a conclusion.  Another huge shout out to the professors of Teachers College at Columbia University in NYC who made it clear in their own analysis of how and why teachers should critique the books and materials they are asked to use to teach from.