Obama’s Education Policy: In Need of Change, Pt. 2

Now with Executive Summary!

Last night, I began telling the saga of the breakup of the Mapleton School District (Thornton, Colorado), and how Barack Obama’s recent celebration at its flagship “small school” highlights his profoundly erroneous stances vis-à-vis school reform and restructuring.  

Tonight, in Part II, I’ll look at the devastating effects of the sundering of Mapleton on the people who had dedicated their lives and careers in service to the community’s youth.  I’ll also examine some of the money issues involved, which might go a long way toward explaining why hucksters like Neil Bush and political animals like Mapleton Expeditionary School for the Arts Director Michael Johnston have been able to amass fortunes and hoodwink voters into supporting poorly thought-out and badly managed “reform” programs, all the while moaning the mantra, “It’s what’s best for kids.”

Historiorant:  For the Blogger-on-the-Go

Last night, the fastest human data-gatherer on the ‘net, LNK, suggested that my admittedly always-kinda-long diaries might benefit from a bulleted list summarizing the highlights.  I concurred; the blogger-on-the-go (of which there are many) may not always have the time for a thoughtful reading of what are usually 4000+-word essays, so I’ll give this whole bullet-pointing thing a shot.  Still, I’d like potentially hostile commenters (this diary does, after all, call into question certain positions of Senator Obama’s) to note that in the several thousand words that follow this Executive Summary, I have included the documentation, evidence, and context to back up my assertions – please do us both a favor and try not to engage your flamethrower until you’ve read the entire argument.

The Executive Summary

  • Premise:  Barack Obama’s recent speech on education, delivered Wednesday, May 28, at the Mapleton (Thornton, Colorado) School District’s flagship “small school” represents a poor choice of example of successful school restructuring, and raises – for me, anyway – serious questions about the implications of the “school reform” measures Senator Obama espouses.
  • Disclaimers & Disclosure:  Between 2001 and 2005, I held positions at Mapleton’s Skyview High School and in the local- and state-level affiliates of the National Education Association – in other words, I saw the restructuring efforts described in the diary up-close, and from a lot of different angles.  As for purity cred, I have supported Obama since the Bailing of John Edwards (though my heart will always be with Mike Gravel), and caucused for Obama on Super Tuesday.  Consider me a solid-but-not-fanatical supporter.
  • This I Believe (in no particular order):  If even half the money and effort we shovel into the charter/private/for-profit schools racket every year were directed toward actually improving conditions within the neighborhood and community public schools we already have, we’d be able to fund some truly visionary challenges that don’t rely on the empathetic interpretation of testing data for us to know they’re right.  How’s about a pledge by the end of President Obama’s first term, every student in America would be in an elementary or core high school class numbering no greater than 20 kid, instead of a promise to fund even more experimental programs of dubious efficacy?

    The No Child Left Behind Act is an odious piece of legislation that must be repudiated and rejected, not tinkered with and “fixed,” as Senator Obama supports.  NCLB and the high-stakes testing industry it has spawned are damaging the education (not irreparably, but severely) of our nation’s youth every school year they remain in force, and are contributing mightily to the teacher retention crisis under which the systems currently labors.

    From last night’s diary on the same topic:

Even as I write this, the Denver traditional media is tripping over itself with laudatory comments about the Mapleton School District and the school “reform” measures it undertook three years ago.  Regrettably, they’re not going to do much fact-checking beyond the talking point fed to them by District officials, because while it is indeed a fantastic success story that all 44 of this year’s Mapleton Expeditionary School for the Arts’ senior class have been accepted to college, the other numbers, not to mention the seamy history of the reform project itself, paint a far bleaker picture of the effectiveness of “small school reform” measures – and gives at least one voter cause for concern about the educational company Senator Obama is choosing to keep.

This diary is not meant to disparage anyone in the Mapleton School District – students, teachers, or parents – except for those specifically called out below.  I fully understand (really, I do) what an achievement it is for one of Mapleton’s “small schools” to have an entire class of seniors admitted to post-secondary institutions, but at the risk of bursting a few bubbles, I feel it an obligation to urge the progressive community in general, and the Barack Obama campaign in particular, to use the strongest of caution when talking of school “reform” schemes – especially those implemented by Superintendent Charlotte Ciancio of the Mapleton School District.  

The recent canonization of Mapleton Expeditionary School for the Arts (MESA) Director Michael Johnston is similarly misguided.  The fact that he has enough pull with the Obama campaign to get the Senator to visit and celebrate a “small school” which is, by nearly all measurements of the annual Colorado School Accountability Report, actually performing worse than the large, comprehensive high school it replaced, is deeply troubling.

Mapleton’s reform initiatives have wreaked havoc upon a district which was struggling in the first place, and have sacrificed a generations’ worth of students to half-baked experimentation and the egos and political ambitions of a handful of administrators.  Though the small victories won by the students along the way are worthy of praise and celebration, and the sacrifices of the teachers who strive for excellence under the most trying of conditions must always be honored, the kind of reform initiative foisted upon the people of Thornton, Colorado, must not be permitted to replicate – and the agents responsible for perpetrating it must not be rewarded with, say, high positions in the Department of Education, should Obama win the Presidency.

  • Tonight’s diary picks up where last night’s, Obama’s Education Policy: In Need of Change, left off – namely, in the 2004/05 school year, when Superintendent Charlotte Ciancio first began to truly impose her vision on the children of the Mapleton School District.
  • Follow the Money: Mapleton funding and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; firing-by-“program”-elimination; the final whimper of the MEA.
  • But…but…doesn’t the contract say you can’t do that?:  How Ciancio and Johnston sidestepped tenure rules and staffed their schools with newbies who could be fired on a whim; a further self-outing disclosure from me; the greenness of MESA’s current staff.
  • Teacher Training for Fun and Profit:  Teachers get screwed out of thousands of dollars in earned wages in exchange for mandatory training; being a Mapleton administrator is highly profitable, and not at all contingent on competence; what NCLB and its spawn have done to teacher retention.
  • Ripple of Evil:  Holding up Ciancio and Johnston as examples to be emulated shows either poor vetting on the part of Obama’s campaign team, or a potentially serious diversion of resources and lowering of the educational bar in our public schools over the course of the next four years.

Follow the Money

Once it became graven in stone that district-wide change would be occurring whether the faculties of the various buildings thought the proposals were realistic or not, Charlotte Ciancio turned her attention to issues of funding and staffing.   In 2003, Mapleton partnered up with the Colorado Small Schools Initiative, which dropped about $400,000 (plus $80,000 worth of consulting) of its own money into Ciancio’s vision, while arranging for another $2.7 million to be funneled from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has made something of a specialty of conducting ham-handed remodelings of school districts (see Manual High School).

How’s this been working out for the Gates Foundation?  From Business Week magazine, June 26:

Six years and a steep learning curve later, the Gateses see just how intractable are the many ills plaguing America’s worst schools. It has been a difficult, even humbling experience…Visits to 22 Gates-funded schools around the country show that while the Microsoft couple indisputably merit praise for calling national attention to the dropout crisis and funding the creation of some promising schools, they deserve no better than a C when it comes to improving academic performance. Researchers paid by their foundation reported back last year that they have found only slightly improved English and reading achievement in Gates schools and substantially worse results in math. There has been more promising news on graduation rates.

So, the schools have an average GPA of 2.0, the students are showing sketchy improvement in reading and writing, are doing way worse at math, and yet the graduation rates are cause for celebration?   How could something like that transpire?  We wouldn’t be “socially promoting” anyone, now would we?

Now that the checks were in the mail, Ciancio turned her attention to staffing her “vision.”  In the fall of 2004, during a welcome-back-to-school breakfast for Skyview teachers, she stated flatly that “teacher retention is not my problem,” and though most of the education professionals present chalked it up to an especially obtuse ad-lib, events later that year proved that Ciancio wasn’t lying: she really didn’t give a rat’s ass about the people who worked for her.

The much-griped-about issue of “tenure” is immaterial if one’s program – as opposed to grade level, etc. – is eliminated.  It’s a subtle distinction, but as a hiring scheme developed over the fall and winter of 2004 and spring of 2005, Ciancio and her leadership cadre exploited this loophole to devastating effect as a means of “cleaning house.”  Teachers with over twenty years of service (and presumably protected by tenure since their fourth year of teaching) found themselves fired by simple elimination of their programs – this is what happened to the award-winning auto shop teacher mentioned in Part One.  In Ciancio-world, fixing cars doesn’t lead to college, and therefore isn’t a viable sort of education for our kids – so off with the shop teacher’s head!  Fashion design, catering, and many other successful programs and teachers were eliminated in the same manner.

Ciancio, and now the small schools “Directors” who were starting to arrive, began orchestrating their dream schools through the hiring process they structured.  The union local’s bargaining team quickly found itself arguing the minutia of implementation plans rather than the greater problem of whether or not the changes were too sweeping and coming too rapidly.  Without fanfare, the time for negotiation about the idea had passed; all that was left was to try to protect the livelihood of men and women who had invested upwards of 30 years in the Mapleton School District, and were now finding themselves kicked to the curb.  They were too expensive, you see, and way too difficult to fire, should they start complaining about the upwards of 150 hours of extra training they would have to go through in order to secure a position in a “small school.”

But…but…doesn’t the contract say you can’t do that?

The issues surrounded tenure, that boogeyman of right-wing “think”-tanks like the Independence Institute (founded 1985, currently festering in Golden, Colorado; seeks to hamper public education so as to make voucher systems look more appealing).  It turned out Ciancio had little use for equating seniority with some measure of due process rights, either, despite her having once served as a building Association Representative back in the days before her reform epiphany – she, like so many other Superintendents, now sees tenture as a loss of control, a threat to the ability to make decisions, an unnecessary hamstringing of what is, by virtue of their being employed by a school board, her God-given right to hire and fire at will.  

The frequency of such petty tyrannies is exactly why tenure is such an important part of any teacher’s union’s negotiated agreements – just as the laughably alarmist screeds of the Independence Institute clearly show the need for such collective bargaining arrangements in the first place:

Mapleton, an option school run by a union-controlled collective bargaining agreement…

Mad Voter: Obama beholden to teachers’ unions

If only it were so.  The Mapleton Education Association, like so many other small locals around the country, was unprepared to deal with the ferocity of an attack backed by hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of surveys and propaganda; the negotiating team found that virtually every objection was met with a stern, “Well, what do you suggest we do to change the system (you student-hater, you)?”  As I mentioned in Part One, the idea of revamping the comprehensive high school had been thrown out in the early days of the debacle; this was Ciancio’s show, and it was going to be done her way.

Once those who could be excised through the “program change” loophole were gone, there were still a few other incorrigibles remaining, including myself.  The District gave the MEA little choice (like I said last night, the local NEA affiliate was always strong on membership, not so much on hell-raising) in accepting a complex , multi-phase system for interviewing and hiring in the small schools, which had the effect of making even tenured, professional teachers interview for jobs they’d held for decades.  The State of Colorado’s 2005 Teacher of the Year was treated in this manner, as was the 2005 recipient of the Colorado Education Association’s prestigious Bates Award, for work in bilingual and multiethnic education.

I was a recipient of the new spirit of inclusiveness that was sweeping the district, too.  In the spring of 2005, I interviewed for a position at MESA, and was rejected on the rather amorphous claim that my class was not “rigorous” enough.  This “reason” is a relative of the mealy-mouthed “you’re just not a good fit for this school” that is often used by principals who have elected not to renew the contract of a probationary (1st three years) teacher; I knew it was complete horseshit, suspect that Director Johnston did, too.  That assessment is borne out by later events: first I was hired in my current position – an instructor in the International Baccalaureate program at one of the highest-performing schools in the state; two months later, I was named Skyview’s Teacher of the Year and gave an address at commencement.  After only two years in my new job at my new school, I was asked to speak before a graduating class again – go ahead and ask your teacher friends just how often that happens.

So it wasn’t a question of rigor – I taught Honors classes the whole time I was at Skyview, and it’s not a conceit to think that at least one or two of the celebrated MESA class of 2008 began their high school careers in my “traditional” 9th-grade classroom – but rather one of politics.  Okay, fair enough; politics, like shit, happens.  But what are the ramifications for people who aren’t as fortunate in finding new positions as I was?

Some have stayed with Mapleton – a handful because they decided that drinking the Kool-Aid was preferable to entering the job market with mortgages still to pay, a few others because they really did believe in Ciancio’s myopic vision.  Many more dispersed around the state, thus benefiting the faculties in which they landed – it’s not often that 20-year vets come knocking at the door, especially knowing that most districts will only give salary schedule credit for about 5 of those years of experience.  The numbers tell the story: in Skyview’s last School Accountability Report (2004/05), 78 full-time and 2 part-time teachers averaged 8 years of teaching experience (down by one from the year before), with 75% of those educators teaching within the subject in which they received their degree.  32 of them had tenure, 48 did not.

At MESA last year, of a teaching staff of 37 (35 full-, 2 part-time), only 4 had tenure, and even they weren’t enough to move the “average years of teaching experience” beyond 4 years.  A scant 59% were teaching in the field in which they got their degree.  While that’s better than the district average of 49%, it does seem to indicate that the “highly qualified teacher” requirements of NCLB are a little more fungible than the ones regarding labeling students, teachers, and schools as “failures.”

Teacher Training for Fun and Profit

With the staffs of the small schools in place, and the professionals of the old Skyview High School scattered to the seven winds, Ciancio could get down to the business of training all these brand-new teachers in the brand-new way of doing things.  Without a strong union presence to protect their free time, the new hires were helpless before the far-reaching demands of the various small schools’ training regimens – as the onerous Mapleton Education Association/Mapleton School Board Negotiated Agreement, June 07 attests:

For staff new to schools, a certificate of training will be given after completion of required professional development or training activities that are specific and unique to each school. Hours required for training for each certificate will be published. Each certificate will be worth a specific pre-determined compensation amount based on hours required multiplied by the rate defined in Article 10.2 in the Negotiated Agreement. Payment will be made promptly following district claim for payment procedures. Certificate requirements will be determined collaboratively by the school district and school model partners. Payment for the pre-determined certificate amount will be as follows:

1. For teachers that have taught in the district under 10 years, 20% of the total compensation amount will be paid each year for five years. If a teacher leaves the district during the five years of payment, they forfeit the balance of the compensation (i.e. A teacher leaves after working three years in the district. They would collect 60% of the compensation amount and forfeit the additional 40%).

the compensation stipulated in Article 10.2 is that of a first-year teacher meeting minimum certification requirements – in other words, the top left-hand corner of the salary schedule

That’s right: not only do teachers with ten years of experience (I’m not even there myself, yet) not get paid at their regular wage – by their 10th year, most will have obtained a Master’s degree, if only to avoid being “frozen” on the salary schedule at year 7-8 – for this extravagant training, but they have to wait five years to get their full compensation for it.  Makes one wonder what the district would have said, had the union offered to deliver higher test scores on an installment plan.

In case you’re wondering, Mapleton District 1 administrators are doing quite well for themselves, thank you very much.  The average admin salary in Mapleton is a whopping $91,466 – nearly $14,000 more than the state average – and doesn’t include all the perks (travel and otherwise) that attend being even a somewhat-tarnished Golden Child of school reform.  In fairness, MESA’s sole administrator makes only about twice the wage of the non-tenured cannon fodder who work for him, but regardless, admin salaries throughout the district don’t seem to be subject to the same terms (of performance or of time in service) as those they impose upon their underlings.

The root of that particular problem can be traced to the way Ciancio, and many others in the top-down school reform crowd, view teachers as a whole.  Rather than seeing educators as the point at which the proverbial rubber meets the road, they are regarded by school reformers as replaceable cogs in a vast, data-driven machine.  To them, “1.0 FTE” (“Full Time Equivalent,” the basic unit of time as it relates to teacher workload and pay) is the same, whether one is talking about a first-year rookie who needs a lot of hand-holding or a 41-year vet who has been adapting to changing educational fads since the Johnson Administration (I was fortunate to have one of those in my department – I said it then, and I’ll say now: Geraldine Pergola was the finest teacher I’ve ever known).

The disregard for experience (and yes, the stridency that sometimes comes with it) exhibited by Johnston and Ciancio is not a phenomenon exclusive to their district – around the country, teachers are leaving the profession at an astonishing, troubling rate.  An excellent article by Cynthia Kopkowski in the April, 2008 issue of neatoday magazine entitled Why they leave: lack of respect, NCLB, and underfunding–in a topsy-turvy profession, what can make today’s teachers stay? describes the “revolving door” quite simply: teacher attrition growing by 50% over the past 15 years (at a cost of $7 billion annually in recruiting and training).  The annual turnover rate is 17%, averaging even higher – 20% and up – in urban schools; one-third of new teachers leave (or are driven from) the profession prior to gaining tenure at the end of Year 3, and almost half are gone by Year 5.

Ripple of Evil

I don’t believe Charlotte Ciancio is an evil person, nor that she ever intended to harm the children of Thornton, Colorado.  She is, rather, the very definition of a zealot – someone so assured of her own correctness that it is simply impossible for her to conceive of why anyone would oppose her “vision,” and so blindingly self-righteousness that she considers all who question her mission to be traitors to the cause of education.  She’s exactly the sort of person who would find nothing incongruous in the statement, “we’re burning this village in order to save it.”

Similarly, I don’t think Michael Johnston is evil – just a practitioner of the sort of realpolitik that’s evolved on the left in recent years.  An alumnus of Vail Mountain School (if you have to ask, you can’t afford it) and Yale Law (dunno if he met Obama there, but given the numbers of personal shout-outs in the May 28 speech, it seems like the two are close), Johnston has been building the sort of resume coveted by progressive educrats – Outward Bound stuff, a few years teaching in Mississippi, now his first principalship – but if the way he’s drawn public attention to the sole diamond in a whole fairway full of rough numbers is any indication, he’s got more in mind than spending a lifetime trying to help the children of Thornton, Colorado, bridge achievement gaps.

With regards to Senator Obama’s education policies, the Mapleton School District’s implementation of restructuring plans was an exercise in autocracy, and neither it, nor the specific administrators who directed its course, should be held up as examples for others to follow.  Superintendent Charlotte Ciancio’s reckless, radical reform measures are a case study in the disenfranchisement of teachers, emasculation of unions, and seismic social upheavals that are all too common in such re-envisionings.  As noted in a post-mortem study of the Manual High School debacle:

Systems work best when power and control are spread throughout the system so multiple participants have a stake in what occurs. When authority is too centralized-in the classroom or school at-large-issues of motivation and trust can undermine the performance of that system.

Small School Reform at the Manual Educational Complex August 6, 2004 (pdf)

Their interests converge at that nexus of cash, shifting expectations, and outright snake-oil sales that is the modern “school reform” movement, an industry that wouldn’t exist without NCLB to provide the data-driven ammunition.  Toss in a few right-wing loons seeking taxpayer subsidies for their kids’ private schooling (vouchers) or “local control” fiends looking to strip teachers of their First Amendment right of free association and dictate curriculum terms to professional educators (charter schools), and you’ve got the makings of a Perfect Storm for the public education system that once won us two world wars and put men on the Moon.

Teachers need help.  We need support.  We need to be treated with the respect and dignity due any professional.  We need to know that the people in charge of education in our country are not going to sell us out in favor of fads and smoke-n-mirrors bookkeeping.

1 comment

  1. This one took longer than expected to write, but I’d promised a Monday delivery – and Lord knows, I wouldn’t want to fall short on a benchmark!

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