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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Cutting Teacher Compensation and School Funding in Wisconsin

Posted By on Tue, Nov 21, 2017 at 3:27 PM

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Does cutting the power of teacher unions, cutting teacher salaries and reducing tenure and seniority rights— all ingredients in the conservative recipe for educational success—make for better education? Let's take a look at Wisconsin, one of the country's experiments in conservative governance.

In 2011, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed a bill that reduced the bargaining rights of K-12 teachers as well as other government employees. It also prohibited payroll deductions for union dues. Teachers and other state employees could still bargain over their pay, but they couldn't bargain over other benefits, hours or conditions of employment. The amount the state contributed to health care and retirement plans decreased.

That same year, Wisconsin's K-12 spending was cut by seven percent. The idea was, teachers would absorb the cuts with their lowered compensation, so the children would get the same education at a lower cost, while lack of seniority, tenure and other teacher protections would allow the state to get rid of underperforming teachers.

How has it all worked out? In 2016, teacher compensation was down 12.6 percent. The decrease is mostly in the form of lowered benefits, but a salary cut is a salary cut. If teachers have to spend more of their pay on health care and retirement, that means their take-home pay takes a significant hit. The number of teachers moving from district to district increased, with more experienced teachers moving from lower income to higher income districts which could pay more. Rural districts were especially hard hit by the teacher drain, which led to an increase in the number of low-experience teachers.

In terms of test scores, in high income districts which made up for the loss of state funds with local revenues, student scores either remained stable or increased. Scores in lower income districts decreased.

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Monday, November 20, 2017

The 'Freedom Center's' High School Course Is On Shaky Ground at TUSD

Posted By on Mon, Nov 20, 2017 at 4:07 PM


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The Star's Hank Stephenson has a good front page article in the Sunday paper about the controversial high school course created by UA's Koch-funded "Freedom Center." It presents an overview of the course and the districts using it, with all sides getting a chance to have their say. I'm pleased to see the Star getting the story out to a wider audience, most of whom have never heard of the Center or the two year old high school course.

Which makes me wonder. Why didn't the Freedom Center publicize the high school course when it was first taught in 2016? A call to the Star undoubtedly would have earned the Center some positive press about itself and the course it created. So far as I can tell, my column in a recent issue of the Weekly was the first mention of the course in the local press. The mentions I've seen elsewhere are a glowing account on the website of the Templeton Foundation, which gave the Center a $2.9 million grant to create and disseminate the course, and a negative review of the course textbook on another site. Even Tucson Unified's board members knew nothing about the course's existence. I first heard about it a month ago from Betts Putnam-Hidalgo, who is a diligent district watchdog and a friend who I disagree with adamantly on some issues and agree with on others. She and some other people have been looking into the course for awhile.

Why is the Freedom Center so publicity shy? My guess is, it prefers to fly under the radar whenever possible. The Center is all about furthering its libertarian agenda in Arizona's universities and high schools. More public recognition could make it harder to maneuver.

The high school course was the subject of a half hour informational discussion at Tucson Unified's November 14 board meeting. Two main questions were raised. First, why was the course authorized by the district administration without the knowledge of the board? Second, now that the board knows of the course's existence, should it officially authorize the course and allow it to continue being taught in the district, or is the curriculum questionable enough that the district should discontinue the course at the end of the school year? The board plans to make some final decisions at its December 5 meeting. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, I want to bring up another issue: the troubling origins of the course.

In my years as a high school teacher and an observer of the national public school scene, I can't remember hearing of a course which was created out of whole cloth by some agency outside the schools. It certainly isn't standard procedure for a university department—or in this case, a university "center"—to receive a multimillion dollar grant for the purpose of developing a brand new high school course, complete with curriculum, a new textbook written in house, and training provided by the Center for the people who will teach the course. Nothing is left to chance here. Every aspect of the course is a product of UA's Freedom Center.

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Thursday, November 16, 2017

Facebook-Free Friday

Posted By on Thu, Nov 16, 2017 at 3:18 PM

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I enjoy Facebook. I really do. I find myself there every day I'm near a computer, usually many times a day. I very much enjoy watching the children of young families (and I'm of an age when most families are young) growing up. I also enjoy mixing it up with smart people who keep me and everyone else honest, until ad hominem attacks start flying, that is, at which time I leave the scene. I like putting my Range posts up so people who don't visit the Weekly site regularly can link to what I'm writing if they're interested. I can do without the "This is what I'm eating" and "This is what I look like an hour after the last time I showed you what I looked like" posts. I scroll past those quickly. No harm, no foul.

But Facebook is also a stinking cesspool of misinformation and propaganda. No matter your political or social viewpoint, you'll find posts designed to make you hate others who are on the other side of an issue, and even hate people who don't care about it quite as passionately as you do. Evil forces did everything they could to use Facebook to undermine our last elections, with the Russian government leading the way. Today we learned Britain's Brexit vote was most likely tainted by the same hands in the same way, which lots of us suspected already. And Zuckerberg & Co. aren't doing a whole lot to fix things.

There's not much I can do to change Facebook. I can protest by taking my page down and exiting the virtual gathering place entirely, but that wouldn't accomplish much of anything except rob me of a little bit of pleasure. So I've decided to make a token protest. I have declared every Friday will be Facebook-Free Friday. Nobody cares that I won't be hanging around Friday, least of all Mark Zuckerberg. But I have a feeling, if Zuckerberg saw his numbers drop dramatically Friday as part of a one-day-a-week boycott, he'd make an effort to fix the problems driving people away. He's no fool. He understands his empire is built on people showing up. If they decide to leave en masse, he's got nothing.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Chris Bannon: 'We Are Coming For You!'

Posted By on Tue, Nov 14, 2017 at 1:33 PM

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In October Robin Hiller, executive director of Voices for Education, sent an email to her mailing list with the subject line, “Protest DeVos/Trump/McSally Monday.” The email asked people to attend a “Public Education Rally” in front of Rep. Martha McSally’s office Oct. 9.

The day before the rally, Hiller received the following email in reply.
Love em all !!!
Great Americans !!!!
You and big bird burned public education to the ground,
Made Americans morons again !
Fire all the teachers union employees and members.
Start over.
We are coming for you !
The sender’s name was Chris Bannon.

“At first I thought it was a joke,” Hiller said. “I looked at the name and wondered if it was someone pretending to be Steve Bannon but didn’t know his first name.” She forwarded the email to a friend who thought it sounded ominous, especially the threatening last line, “We are coming for you!”

Hiller took a closer look. She hadn’t heard of Chris Bannon, but she recognized his email address as belonging to the University of Arizona. She googled his name and found he was connected with UA’s Biosphere 2.

Chris’s brother Steve Bannon, one-time chief strategist for President Trump and current head of Breitbart News, had been acting CEO of Biosphere 2 in the 1990s. Later, Chris became general manager. His current title at the University of Arizona is Development Officer, Economic Development in the Life Sciences department.

According to Hiller, she contacted the head of Chris Bannon’s department at the university, who in turn contacted personnel. Next, she called the office of her city councilman, Steve Kozachik. His office contacted the Tucson police department, which said it would have a police presence at the Oct. 9 rally.

Before the rally began, a police car pulled up on the sidewalk 50 feet away and remained there. The rally went on without incident.

Hiller received a call from the university telling her that because Chris Bannon’s email came from a university address, the matter was sent to the personnel office, but she would not hear anything further about it. I sent Bannon two emails asking if he wanted to clarify anything about the email he sent to Hiller. He did not respond.

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Monday, November 13, 2017

Trusting Entrepreneurs to Improve Education: A Cautionary Tale

Posted By on Mon, Nov 13, 2017 at 5:01 PM

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"Beware of all educational enterprises that require billionaire entrepreneurs." Henry David Thoreau wrote that, or almost wrote that. His actual words were, "Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes." I just updated it a bit.

Bill Gates has put many hundreds of millions of dollars into education improvement schemes, with minimal success. Now he's joining his billions with Mark Zuckerberg's billions to push personalized learning, which means more computers, more educational software and less interference from those unpredictable, unreliable humans known as teachers. Sounds like a sure-fire road to success, doesn't it?

Case in point. Max Ventilla is a serious-but-not-too-serious Yale grad in his thirties who favors jeans and t-shirts—the very picture of the modern major tech guru. He founded AltSchool in 2013, with the help of about $175 million in venture capital. Mark Zuckerberg was one of the venturers. Ventilla opened seven schools where he could try out the educational technology he's creating. His plan is to use "big data" to help schools tailor education to each student's individual needs. That means cameras monitoring every student down to facial expressions, infrared cameras keeping track of everything students touch, and, of course, microphones recording every word they say. It also means lots of screen time, monitored down to the keystroke, of course. Amass all the data, Ventilla believes, and the result will be vast reservoirs of information which can be sliced and diced to help us understand how students act and learn at the most intimate level. The Big Brother-like surveillance also means an immense treasure trove of data which can be used to tailor commercial pitches to students and their parents in the short and the long term, but that's not the purpose of the data collection—not the stated purpose anyway.

To send a student to one of the schools costs parents over $25,000 a year, which isn't much problem for a select group of folks in Palo Alto, San Francisco and New York where the schools are located. These students are on everyone's "most likely to succeed" list, so it's hard to understand what Ventilla thinks he'll learn about educating the other 99.9 percent of the population from this rarified collection of children.

Four years after opening, Ventilla is closing one school and consolidating others. Why? Not because the schools aren't working, according to AltSchool, or because it's running short of cash. It's a business decision. Ventilla says he wants to devote more of the company's energy to tapping into the growing demand for software promoting personalized learning.
"We're being realistic," Ventilla said. "In a few years time, when we raise our next round [of venture capital], we will have to show not only great success in the schools we run, but real progress in extending our platform to other schools."
Parents are upset about the sudden closures and the effects the dislocation will have on their children, but business is the business of business, not the negative impact of business decisions on former customers.

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Friday, November 10, 2017

A UA Prof Chimes In on the 'Freedom Center'

Posted By on Fri, Nov 10, 2017 at 8:00 AM

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The discussion continues. First I wrote a guest opinion in the Weekly's print edition about University of Arizona's Center for the Philosophy of Freedom, aka the Freedom Center, creating a high school course being taught in Tucson Unified and other local school districts. The next week, Michael McKenna, director of the Freedom Center, responded with a guest opinion of his own. I followed with a post about one small part of what McKenna's wrote, promising I would write more in the future.

In place of my post, here is a letter submitted to the Weekly by David N. Gibbs, Professor of History at the UA, which wasn't included in this week's print edition. It covers the main points I was planning to make and takes it a few steps further by linking the Center to state politics.
To the editor:

David Safier’s recent article brought to light disturbing connections between the Center for the Philosophy of Freedom, associated with the UA Philosophy Department, and a series of far right funders, including Charles Koch. Safier noted that the Freedom Center has produced a high school curriculum that contains a strong flavor of political indoctrination.

In a Guest Opinion, Freedom Center director Michael McKenna defends his program, but if read carefully, McKenna confirms much of Safier’s original article. Thus McKenna bristles at the notion that the Koch family has influenced the center – but he concedes that they provided $1.8 million in funding, a sizable sum for an academic unit, and have played a major role in funding the Philosophy Department’s graduate program. McKenna adds that the center has received funds from approximately twenty-four other sources, including such conservative stalwarts as the Kendrick family and the Templeton Foundation. Clearly, the Freedom Center has not been hurting for funds. McKenna bristles at the accusation that the Freedom Center’s high school textbook is tendentiously slanted in favor of the libertarian economics favored by their funders; but McKenna concedes that the text “is perhaps intellectually biased.” And yes, the textbook does “favor somewhat libertarian or more generally right-leaning views.” This is hardly a model of balance.

One might add that Republican legislators have provided additional funds for the Freedom Center, and also its counterpart in Tempe. According to the Arizona Republic (4/27/16), the two freedom centers have become “academic allies” for Governor Doug Ducey and his friends. Legislators of both parties acknowledge that the two freedom centers serve ideological purposes – or to quote Republican legislator Jay Lawrence, the state funding for the centers constitutes “'a wonderful opportunity' to fund conservative viewpoints.” And in the view of Democrat Eric Meyer, the centers constitute a “think tank that spews out propaganda.”

What is this ideological Freedom Center doing at a state university? Why is the UA administration allowing this to happen?


David N. Gibbs
Professor of History
University of Arizona

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Wednesday, November 8, 2017

State Grades Are All About the A's and F's

Posted By on Wed, Nov 8, 2017 at 10:25 AM

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Here's what's important about the state's school grades.

If a school gets an A, it gets a sack full of results-based funding money—somewhere between $5,500 and $10,000 per teacher, depending on the number of low income students at the school. That's a big friggin' deal.

If a school gets an F, that means it failed as a school and is officially on notice. Different types of remedial actions can come into play. For a charter it can mean the school will be closed if it doesn't improve. For a district, it can mean the school will come under state control, though it's not clear what exactly that entails. That's a big deal too.

The other three grades, the B's, C's and D's, don't result in any direct changes for the school. No money, no threats from the state. Each school and district determines how it's going to deal with the B's, C's and D's, and public may raise or lower its estimation of the schools, but that's it.

So if a school moves in or out of an A or F designation, that really matters. If it moves up or down among the B, C and D grades, that's not nothing, but it's not a momentous change.

The state is going to make changes to the grading system, which means some school grades will change from what they are now. If you want to know what's happening, don't be distracted by some fancy new grading rubric. First, follow the money. The biggest battle will be over which schools get both an A and the money that comes with it. Then follow the charter closures. When someone like Republican Senator Sylvia Allen has a charter that received an F using the current grading system, something has to be done to make sure powerful people like her don't come under the gun. If the B, C and D grades get scrambled a bit in the process, that doesn't have much to do with the power struggles going on behind the scenes.

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Friday, November 3, 2017

I Infantilize High School Students and Have Little Faith in the Intelligence of High School Teachers? Who Knew? (Certainly Not Me)

Posted By on Fri, Nov 3, 2017 at 4:08 PM

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The current issue of the Weekly has a response to my Guest Opinion about UA's libertarian-leaning Center for the Philosophy of Freedom and the high school course it created. It's written by Michael McKenna, the  current director of the "Freedom Center." I braced myself for a serious tongue lashing. Instead I found some serious quibbles with what I wrote along with information which either confirmed or added to the facts and ideas I presented.

I plan to post about McKenna's response in depth next week, but now I want to focus on my favorite part of his opinion piece, where he writes about how little respect I have for high school students and teachers.
Safier and those who find [David] Schmidtz's course so outrageous should consider just how much they infantilize high school students and how little faith they apparently have in the intelligence of high school teachers. Advanced high school students with an interest in enrolling in challenging college courses can be a pretty tough audience. And most high school teachers offering such courses do have minds of their own—even if they do get the chance to be trained by Schmidtz in how to teach the course.
I don't know if McKenna has taken the time to look into my work history even though I refer to it regularly in my posts. He may or may not know I am a retired public high school teacher who has taught thousands of high school students and worked closely with hundreds of high school teachers. I'm pretty sure most of my colleagues and former students would be surprised to hear that I held them in little regard, especially my students who know I encouraged them to think independently and deeply respected their intelligence and potential.

Reading McKenna's paragraph above, I have to wonder if he has much respect for the power of education to shape minds and the power of teachers to change students' perceptions of the world. Why did he choose to be a professor, I wonder. Why "profess" if you don't believe what you say will have much impact on the people you profess to?

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