Thursday, November 21, 2013

Shared Awareness: Information + Technology = "Education Spring"

Matt DiRienzo, Group Editor for 21st Century Media in CT, recommended Clay Shirky's "Here Comes Everybody" for one of my MFA students (thanks Matt!) and I've been reading it, too. It's worth picking up if you want to understand the growing backlash against Corporate Education Reform, the Common Core and my focus here, recent events in Hartford, CT.

As anyone who has following the edreform debate will be aware, the push for the current brand of high stakes, test-based stacked ranking of students, teachers and schools has come from moneyed interests - hedge fund billionaires like Paul Tudor Jones, Steve Mandel & Whitney Tilson, and tech billionaires such as Mark Zuckerberg,

Add in the mega bucks of megaphilanthropies like Broad Education Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the Donald and Doris Fisher Fund, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and corporate interests like Pearson, and you get a pretty clear idea of how much money and power is behind the corporate education reform movement and the push to privatize our public schools.

It was difficult for the constituency of people who work with children and could see the many, valid problems with corporate edreform strategies to make themselves heard, because to put it bluntly, in this country, for all of our ideals of being a democracy and a meritocracy, money talks. This has only become more pronounced in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.

It's not just that the wealthy have greater influence in the corridors of power because of their ability to make campaign donations. It's that the wealthy and powerful have a disproportionate influence on traditional means of communication - newspapers, television, radio. To get out a conflicting narrative means rocking the donor/advertising boat, and when media outlets are already struggling to survive in choppy economic waters, it's become abundantly clear that boat rocking is avoided at all costs.

But what's happened in Hartford - and is catching fire all across the country, much to Arne Duncan's chagrin - is that new technology is giving the rest of us (Shirky's "everybody")the tools for shared awareness and that awareness leads to action, which is resulting in consequences for those who have willfully ignored our voices for far too long.

Let's focus on an example from Hartford. The Hartford Board of Education, consists of 9 members, 5 appointed by Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra (including himself) and 4 elected members. Parents have complained about lack of transparency about process, lack of interest in the types of programs being pushed on them, and lack of resources before the decision to privatize the schools. But they haven't always had sufficient information and the ability to communicate and disperse that information in a timely way, in order to protest the Board's decisions.

In the last year or so, however, things have changed. First, there is the blogosphere - and blogs like Wait What? and Real Hartford have been providing a function that traditional media sources haven't - investigative reporting - thus giving parents information.

Social media is what has given this information power. By spreading the information far and wide, it's become harder for the traditional media to ignore, and thus for the Hartford politicians and the Board of Education to turn a blind eye to parent's concerns.

What's more, as Shirky observed in HERE COMES EVERYBODY regarding protests in Liepzig, (GDR) in 1989 prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, "each of the citizens...had some threshold at which they might join a protest. Each week the march happened without a crackdown offered additional eidence that the marches provided an outlet for their disaffection; each successful march diminished the fear felt by some additional part of the populace."

We saw this with the Steve Perry/Capital Prep story in Hartford. Jonathan Pelto started covering Perry's inappropriate tweets, his chronic absenteeism for speaking engagements, and his bullying behavior on Wait What?. Former and current teachers started approaching him behind the scenes, but because of Perry's threats to ruin their careers, they were concerned about going on the record. However a few things happened at once which changed the situation. A former Capital Prep teacher, Michael Fryar, 45, filed a complaint with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities over his alleged treatment at Capital Prep.

According to a report in the Hartford Courant:
"Fryar said he was fired Nov. 8, only weeks after he formally complained to the district and state that he was denied professional development opportunities and given low evaluation scores "with no factual basis."

Fryar criticized Perry's leadership and described an environment of low teacher morale. He also questioned Capital Prep's disciplinary practices, including instances in which students ran up and down the school's stairs as an apparent form of punishment, Fryar said.

City schools spokesman David Medina said the district would not comment on Fryar's allegations because of "pending litigation." Perry, who declined to comment on much of Fryar's remarks, denied that morale is low."

This, coupled with Supt Christina Kishimoto's proposal to give Perry an additional school to run, (under structured as a private management company owned by Perry) which was scheduled for a hasty BOE vote, lit the spark. Having social media tools allowed parents to stay informed, to spread the word, and to make their feelings known publicly. As more parents and teachers started telling their stories, others became more forthright.

From Wait What?

Addendum: New parental complaint


At this point the issues became harder for both the BOE and the traditional media to ignore, although the establishment paper,(CT's Daily Mail) the Courant, appears to still be doing its best to do so. In its late, and obviously reluctant coverage of the Perry tweet affair (which it posted after the Washington Post had already taken up the story)the Courant headlines with "Teacher's Union Asks for Investigation into Principal's 'threatening' tweet." Let's put "threatening' in quotes because we're going to pretend that a student or a teacher making that tweet like wouldn't have been suspended, right HC? It's just that meddlesome old teacher's union making trouble again! it.

Multiply this effect with a network of concerned parents, educators, professors, writers and activists around the country and you can start to understand why the Opt Out Movement is growing, why opposition to the Common Core is growing, why districts are opting out of RTTT funding, and why Arne Duncan (and Democrats who support him) will regret that "white suburban mom" comment for a VERY VERY LONG TIME. Because it's not just white suburban moms. It's everybody. And we're here, armed with information, research and investigative reporting and the ability to spread it, even if the traditional media won't.


  1. I think that the comment you've shared above speaks to my concern about the entire direction of education; no longer seeking to properly educate children, schools have become a never ending drill to prepare the students to perform on standardized tests. Standardized tests require standardized answers, and the world simply doesn't work that way. Furthermore, many students will not bloom in this educational environment. It feeds the constant need to apply one set of metrics to many types of children; those children who struggle to meet the standards are made to feel "stupid" and once that self-image is set it is extremely difficult to reform.

    I was a child with learning disabilities prior to widespread acknowledgement of the existence of learning disabilities. I struggled to learn to read; I struggled with time management; I struggled with maintaining attention to my classes or to my homework. I self-identified as a poor student and consequently didn't push myself very hard in my studies. As an adult, I realize that I am an intelligent, capable person. If I had realized that as a child I may have achieved far greater success academically.

    I don't have children and if I did I have no idea how I would try to handle their education. I believe in public, neighborhood schools but here in Hartford they seem to be constantly converting to magnets and seem to focus on teaching to a test.

    1. I think maybe it's because I've parented (well, still am parenting!) two very different children that I am so passionate about fighting the corporate education reform high stakes testing model. There is no one size fits all method of education, and I'm so sick of places like Achievement First and Capital Prep being held up as "successful models" on the basis of test scores when they're taking on few Special Needs students - and the few that they are aren't getting the services that they're supposed to be getting - or ELL students. And the "no-excuses" thing - for a kid with learning disabilities or special needs, it's cruelty. I have always had extremely high expectations for my son - because I see his gifts and possibilities - but at the same time, I've always tried to ensure that I'm giving him the support (both academic and emotional) that he needs. I can't even imagine how damaged he would have been if he'd been put in an isolation room or made to wear a different colored shirt or run up and down a flight of stairs when he'd a problem at school. It's horrifying to think of what these kids are being subjected to in the name of "reform." Trust me, if they tried those methods on the little darlings in Greenwich, there would be lawsuits out the freaking wazoo. So why can they get away with it in Bridgeport and Hartford?