How would you compare Pennsylvania’s situation to that of other states?
Pennsylvania has more cyber charters than any other state. And if you were to ask me, what’s the biggest scam in education today, I would say it’s cyber charter schools. There’s probably some small number of kids who need them … but these schools have become raiders. They raid the public-school budget and provide a bad education, and have high drop-out rates.
The CEO of K-12 [the country’s largest cyber-charter program] is from Goldman Sachs and McKinsey [a prominent corporate consultant] — he doesn’t have a background in education. His compensation in 2011 was $5 million, and it was tied not to academic performance but enrollment.
Last year, I met a guy who was one of the original administrators of K12. At a certain point, he realized that the whole company had been overtaken by a corporate mentality that said to recruiters “you’ll get a bonus for the number of kids you recruit.” So they no longer talked about education, they talked about recruitment.
In the 2010 book I was saying “I can’t go to my grave without clearing my conscience of saying “all the things I used to support don’t work. … I can’t die with people thinking, ‘She believed in all these terrible ideas.’ I’ve got to clear myself and do the Paul Revere thing.”
One big surprise in your book is that over the years, when kids have been tested on the same standardized questions, scores are actually improving, not getting worse.
I have to say it was a surprise to me too. In my book three years ago, I didn’t say, “Guess what, the scores are up.” I was just going along with the conventional wisdom. There’s a very finely honed narrative: The schools are failing, failing, failing. But if you rank test scores by poverty and income, our low-poverty kids get incredible scores — higher than Finland and Japan and Korea … I began looking at long-trend test scores and the picture is up, up, up. There has been dramatic improvement, especially for black and Hispanic kids. Graduation rates are the highest they’ve ever been. [But saying that] would fly in the face of this narrative.
But there are schools that are failing, right?
You don’t need standardized tests to tell you which schools they are. They’re the ones with high concentrations of poverty and segregation. That’s what the tests tell us every year, and then we say the way to fix the schools is to close them. That doesn’t fix them; it just scatters the kids, and whatever problems they had. … It’s not that schools are failing. It’s that America is failing to address poverty.
So if you’re a parent in ones of those schools — I’m sure you get this question all the time — what should you do?
Parents ought to get together and demand more teachers, smaller classes, more intensive help for the kids. You have to analyze the problem, and closing the school is not a way of doing that. If kids aren’t learning, you have to ask why.
Sure, but as you know, if those parents go before the school administrators, they’ll be told, “Yeah, we’d like to do all that, but federal and state aid is being cut. It’s out of our hands.”
Parents should be aware that [Gov.] Tom Corbett did cut $1 billion out of the schools, even as the cost of maintaining the schools go up. There are schools that don’t have basic resources to provide an education. But that doesn’t mean the schools are bad. It means the people in Harrisburg are bad. What state officials are saying is, “If your school isn’t working, we’ll give you a voucher to go somewhere else.” That’s an evasion of their responsibility.
Do you think reformers have any ideas that are worth following, or criticisms that are valid?
So many of the people in the reform movement have never taught, that it’s hard to take their ideas seriously. It makes me feel like there’s some PR firm that is messaging all this. They take what are in some cases are very bad ideas, and instead of saying “we want to privatize the schools, we want to monetize the children,” they say “we’re reformers.” Well, everybody likes reform. But in this case the reformers turn out to be all these people who have never been in a classroom except as students. And so many of them went to elite prep schools.
There was a debate here in Pittsburgh a few months back, in which some local parents decided to opt out of standardized testing, because they think it’s a bankrupt idea they don’t want to enable. But I’ve also talked to parents who are concerned about that approach: They love the schools too, but they say that if these parents don’t let their kids take the test, it ends up hurting the school itself, since kids of parents who are engaged could expect to help shore up the test scores. What do you think?
I’ve evolved about that. When my book came out I was asked if I would support opting out, and I said “no that’s way too radical. It sounds almost like lawbreaking” But I’ve now come to the conclusion that, because of all the power and money amassed behind testing, that the only way to stop it is to opt out. The idea is not to have a few parents doing it, but a whole school doing it, or a whole district. If the whole district opts out, they can’t do anything to you. And imagine if the whole city opted out: What are they going to do, cut your funding? I don’t think so. One thing I’ve learned about federal policy over the years is that they make threats, but. They tell you “we’ll cut off your title 1 funding,” but they don’t because that money goes to poor kids, and nobody wants to take the political heat from denying funding to poor kids.
But I think if you were thinking of a way to hurt poor kids, I can’t think of a worse way to do that than telling them year after year that they are failures. And the nature of these tests is that most of them WILL fail. Because it’s a bell curve, and most of the poor kids will be on the bottom part of that curve.
A while ago, I read a piece in Slate that said, “If you send your kid to private schools, you are a bad person, because your school needs parents like you to be involved in the district, and to have a stake in it.” I assume the same argument would apply to people who move to suburbs with better schools. Do you think that’s true?
I don’t think it’s necessarily true. I don’t go along with the idea that you’re a bad citizen. I think your responsibility is to support public education even if you send your kids to private schools. Or even if you have no children at all. What the “reformers” have tried to do is inculcate a market orientation. They want people to think school is just a consumer good, and you choose it the same way you choose what shoes you want. But that’s not true. It shouldn’t be true. If we’re going to be a decent society, there have to be public institutions. You can’t say it’s a matter of consumer choice, because what happens then is people say “it’s not my problem if those kids aren’t getting a good education.”