Monday, June 10, 2019

Is The Charter School Bandwagon Losing Momentum?

Posted By on Mon, Jun 10, 2019 at 3:14 PM

  • Illustration from graphic

"The charter school movement is in trouble." So begins an article in the Washington Post. I think that's an exaggeration. Charter schools aren't in trouble as such — their numbers are still on the rise — but they may be cresting. Their once-shiny reputation is tarnishing. Charter proponents' mouths have made too many promises the schools can't keep, and people are beginning to take notice.

Some folks who have read my charter-related posts think I'm opposed to charter schools. Not so. I support any school — district, charter or private — with good teachers, a good curriculum and a strong overall educational philosophy. Plenty of charters fit that description. I would have no problem recommending a charter school to parents if I thought it was a good fit for their children.

What I'm against is the charter school PR machine, part of the ridiculously well funded "education reform"/privatization movement. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent every year demonizing public education while praising charters as the answer to our educational prayers, then propping up the schools with funding above and beyond what they get from the state.

District schools deserve criticism, but not the "failing schools" slam they get from privatizers, and charters hardly deserve the lavish praise they receive from their financial patrons. That's why I go heavy on charter criticism. With all the money and effort perpetuating the myth of charter school superiority, I feel it's my duty to debunk their myth-making whenever I can.

The first charters began in the early nineties. Arizona's charters opened for business in 1995. The schools have had nearly 30 years to prove their worth. Yet when you look at legitimate studies comparing charters and district schools, the results are pretty much a wash. In one state, charter school students have better scores than similar students in district schools. In another state it's the district schools that have the edge. Charter students may have higher test scores in fourth grade math while district schools top charters in eighth grade English, or vice versa.

People on both sides of the argument can cherry-pick the data to fit their narrative, but when you look at the numbers as a whole, the differences in student achievement are so slight as to be insignificant. If parents choose well, they can send their children to excellent charter schools, but if they fall prey to false advertising, they might end up sending their children to some of the worst schools you'll find anywhere.

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Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The First Glimmerings of Charter School Accountability In Arizona

Posted By on Wed, Jun 5, 2019 at 3:15 PM

  • Illustration from graphic

Arizona's Department of Education may begin taking a more active role in charter school accountability, thanks to some terrific investigative reporting from the Arizona Republic, which woke people up to the potential for corruption and profiteering in the charter sector, and a Department of Education headed by Superintendent Kathy Hoffman who cares about such things.

Two connected southern Arizona charters, Lifelong Learning Academy in Tucson and Jack Thoman Air and Space Academy and Performing Arts Studio in Green Valley, have been denied alternative-school status by the state, the first denial in five years.

Getting alternative-school status is a big deal. Because the schools are supposed to serve students who are potential drop-outs, they don't get an A-F grade from the state.

That makes sense. Students enrolled in alternative schools are likely to be behind academically, meaning their state test scores will be low. As a result, the schools' state grades, which are mainly based on student scores, would usually be D's and F's even when they are serving their students well. Two F's in a row and a school loses its contract with the state. So, to allow alternative schools to remain in operation, the state doesn't give them grades.

The problem is, if no one is paying attention, a charter school doing a lousy job can slide under the radar by calling itself an alternative school. It looks like that's been happening. According to the Republic article, the number of students in alternative schools has increased 40 percent since 2010.

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Friday, May 31, 2019

Arizona's Education Budget Increase: Too Little And Ten Years Too Late

Posted By on Fri, May 31, 2019 at 3:34 PM


If you look at the numbers in next year's state budget, you might think education made out pretty well. There's all this new money: $136 million in additional assistance for schools; $130 million for teacher raises; $20 million to hire counselors or security officers; $30 million for results based funding.

You might also think I made out pretty well if I told you my boss said I'm doing a great job and handed me a crisp new hundred dollar bill. Until I told you the boss cut my salary by five hundred dollars.

Same thing with the state budget. All that brand spanking new education money sounds good until you realize, the decade-long cuts to education have been so deep, even with the new money, schools are a billion dollars behind where they were in 2008. And back then, Arizona had the lowest per student spending in the country.

To see how we dug ourselves in a hole so deep that adding $300 million to the education budget still leaves the schools a billion dollars behind, we need to start back in 2008 with the Great Recession.

Like most other states, Arizona was hit hard when the economy sank like a stone. The state was desperately short of funds. The budget had to be cut, and education took a big hit. The Republicans in charge told us, shaking their heads sadly, we have no choice. There just isn't enough money to go around.

A few years later in 2010, after more cuts to education, Governor Jan Brewer decided we did have a choice. She defied the standard Republican "No new taxes" mantra and supported a ballot measure for a one cent sales tax increase for education. The voters agreed with Brewer. The measure passed with 64 percent of the vote.

The problem was, it only lasted three years.

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Views from Tucson, Issue 2 Captures the City with Lo-fi Nostalgia

Posted By on Fri, May 31, 2019 at 1:30 PM

Smartphones may take sharp pictures, but there's nothing quite like analog film. Kikie Wilkins, local film photographer, uses his film cameras loaded with new and expired film to capture ordinary and candid moments in Tucson. His new zine, Views from Tucson, Issue 2 is out now.

The photos in Issue 2 are all taken using his Kodak Brownie Hawkeye box camera. He described the camera as being meant for the amateur photographer "who was more interested in taking pictures of the family vacation or a child's birthday party."

"I decided to use the Hawkeye to take these photographs as a personal challenge to see what results could obtain from such a basic camera."

The combination of Wilkins' use of the Hawkeye and old film creates a sun bleached, dreamy image. The colors drift into dusty pastels and feel like they're from a different time. He photographs familiar landmarks, old cars, images of childhood.

This issue features views of the flooded Rillito river at the Camino de la Tierra crossing, the downtown jazz fiesta, some cars of Tucson and neighborhood views in a self-published book. The 44-page issue is printed in high quality color and black & white on gloss paper.

Issues can be picked up for $15 at Wooden Tooth Records at 426 E 7th Street, Tucson, AZ 85705, or ordered directly from Kikie for $12.

Instagram: @kikiewilkins

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Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Kathy Hoffman Is Doing What She Was Elected To Do

Posted By on Wed, May 29, 2019 at 2:36 PM

  • Kathy Hoffman
Four years ago when Republican Diane Douglas was the new Superintendent of Public instruction, I'd written four posts about her by the end of May, much of it positive. I'm a bit ashamed to admit I've gone this long without writing about our current superintendent, Democrat Kathy Hoffman. It's time to correct that.

My posts about Douglas were sighs of relief that she wasn't acting like the fire-breathing ultraconservative she played on the campaign trail. In the early going, Douglas was making reasonable, inclusive statements about Arizona's schools and students. She was doing no harm, which was the best I could hope for. To my surprise, she even did some good. So I offered her praise and encouragement during the early going. When Trump came into the picture, Douglas reverted to wingnut type, but that was years later.

Hoffman, meanwhile, began doing the kind of job I hoped she would from her first days in office. I've been waiting to see if the trend would continue, and it has. Almost halfway through her first year, Hoffman has created enough of a track record for me to say, I'm impressed.

It's important to understand the nature of the superintendent' job to put Hoffman's accomplishments in perspective. She administers a multi-billion dollar budget but has no direct impact on legislators or legislation. Any political clout Hoffman has comes from the way she uses her bully pulpit. Thus far, she's used it effectively. She continues to emphasize her perspective as an educator, which is a welcome relief after three decades of non-educators running the Department of Education. Hoffman makes it clear, she knows teachers, she knows students, she knows public schools.

Hoffman took her oath of office with her hand on a children's book. That could be called gimmicky, I suppose, but I appreciated the symbolism. She was swearing an oath to serve the students, to put their needs foremost. Most teachers make a similar oath to themselves every year before the first day of school. It was a promising start.

There was no symbolism involved in Hoffman's strong stance against the Arizona law stating that sex education courses can't say anything positive about what the law calls "a homosexual life-style." Referring to it as the "no promo homo law" in her State of Education speech, Hoffman said the policy is "outdated . . . harmful and wrong."

The law may have been on the way out regardless. The board of education was facing a suit over the statute, and Attorney General Mark Brnovich said he wouldn't come to its defense. The board of education voted unanimously against it, then in April the legislature repealed the law. Whether or not Hoffman's aggressive stance on the topic moved votes, her full-throated condemnation of the old law helped clarify the issue and boost it into statewide prominence.

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Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Yarmulkes, Money and Labels: Trump's Antisemitism and Racism

Posted By on Tue, Apr 16, 2019 at 4:46 PM


Is Trump our Racist/Antisemite-in-chief, or does he just play at it on TV and Twitter?

The nicest thing you can say about Trump's racist and antisemitic comments and tweets is what Andrew Gillum said about Ron DeSantis when the two of them were running for Florida governor: "I’m not calling Mr. Desantis a racist," Gillum said. "I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist."

I'm not running for office so I don't have to be as careful as Gillum. I'll say it without equivocation: Trump is an antisemite. Trump is a racist. Full stop.

Except that, some will counter, we know Trump will say or do anything to win the news cycle, pander to his base and vilify his enemies. Can we separate the actual prejudices festering inside his fevered brain from his slash-and-burn political tactics?

After the 2018 clashes between participants in the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and protestors, Trump said there were "fine people on both sides." Was that Trump's honest opinion or a way to assure the continued allegiance of people like neo-Nazi leader Richard B. Spencer whose post-election speech praising Trump's victory included Nazi salutes and the triumphant call, “Hail Trump. Hail our people. Hail victory!”

Me, I'd say anyone who can find a way to defend people chanting "Jews will not replace us" is an antisemite. But we're talking about Trump who lies whenever it suits his needs, so the point is open to debate.

Trump has joined other Republicans in turning Rep. Ilhan Omar, who is black, Muslim and has a foreign accent (she was born in Somalia) — she's a bigot's trifecta — into the Democratic villain du jour. Is he just looking toward 2020, or does he despise Omar as much as he says?

It's hard to tell the difference in Trump's most public statements, but we can get at the genuine bigotry inside that twisted head of his by looking at less publicized moments.

Let's start with his antisemitism. Yes, I know Jared, Trump's son-in-law, is Jewish and Ivanka converted, making her children, his grandchildren, Jewish. He dotes on his daughter and, to the extent he's capable of affection, it's possible he may actually love his grandchildren, but as anyone who has taken a close look at bigotry knows, that doesn't stop him from accepting stereotypes and harboring ill feelings toward Jews.

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Friday, April 5, 2019

Inclusion Matters

Posted By on Fri, Apr 5, 2019 at 4:08 PM

  • Composite from Bigstock images

It's the early 1990s. Imagine a U.S. high-tech company has made a quantum leap in face recognition software. The product is so far ahead of the competition, it corners the market and becomes the industry standard.

In this imaginary scenario, the company is owned and staffed by African American techies.

What are the chances the weakest link in the software would be its inability to recognize dark-skinned faces? Almost zero, right?

When early incarnations of the software were tried out on the company staff, any problems with differentiating and recognizing people with dark skin would jump out at them immediately. The company would make it a priority to pinpoint and correct the problems, because who wants to create a program where they, their coworkers, their mothers, fathers, boyfriends, girlfriends, wives, husbands, sons and daughters can be mistaken for someone else? The recognition system for dark-skinned faces would be as close to flawless as the company could make it.

Of course, before bringing the product to market, the company would make sure the system worked with lighter skinned faces as well, because that's where the money is. Still, its accuracy might drop a bit because Anglos were excluded from the initial testing and tweaking process, and they weren't in the room prodding their fellow techies to work out the bugs.

But if, instead of it being an all-African American company, a quarter of the top people were Anglo, white faces would have gotten more attention from the beginning. If you add Asians and people from other ethnic groups into the mix — and women, let's not forget about women — you're likely to have as close to an equal opportunity face recognition product as any company could create.

Now let's jump back into the real world. One of the weakest links in today's face recognition software is recognizing darker faces. In a grotesque example, in 2015 when Google users asked to see images of gorillas, some African American faces were likely to be included. Google apologized and promised to fix the problem. Instead of fine-tuning the software though, Google simply blocked gorillas from its image search options to take care of that one specific problem.

An article in Thursday's Star is about Amazon's face recognition software which appears to have trouble detecting African American women's faces. As you might imagine, the problem wasn't discovered in house. It was pointed out by a female, African American researcher at MIT.

Both Google and Amazon tried to make excuses for their errors. A Google spokesperson said its software made mistakes with other people's faces as well. Amazon attacked the methodology the MIT researcher used in her recent study, though a group of Artificial Intelligence scholars defended her work. Both companies thought it was perfectly fine to downplay the problem and minimize the effort they put into finding solutions.

Problems like these arise regularly in the private and the public sector because too few members of minority groups are sitting at the table. If Silicon Valley had more African Americans in positions of power, they could throw a spotlight on racially insensitive aspects of the corporation's work, which are invisible or unimportant to others, and work to find solutions to the problems.

Here's another recent example, or two or three, from Hollywood.

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Thursday, March 28, 2019

Kamala Harris Wants To Raise Teachers' Salaries

Posted By on Thu, Mar 28, 2019 at 2:28 PM

  • Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Green New Deal is an aspirational list of ideas of ways we can improve the environment and lift people's standards of living.

Do we need a Green New Deal? Is it doable? Can we afford it? Democrats are asking those questions seriously while Republicans pretend the GND would mean an end to hamburgers, milkshakes and airplanes.

The best thing about the Green New Deal is people are forced to talk about climate change and the environment. The topics now have a place at the political table. The more politicians and others talk about them, the better the chances we'll do something to address them.

On another front, some Democratic presidential candidates are advocating for Medicare for All. Others are calling for a private/public partnership which guarantees health care for everyone.

What's the best way to deliver health care to the most people? How will we pay for it? Democrats are holding a vigorous debate on the topic while Republicans make another stab at killing Obamacare and claim to have a plan of their own, something which they've been talking about for years but have yet to unveil.

This is another issue which no presidential candidate can avoid talking about. Like the environment, health care has a seat at the political table. It cannot be ignored, and that's a good thing.

Kamala Harris, Democratic candidate for president, has pulled another chair up to the table, this one for teachers. Harris says teachers are underpaid and under-appreciated, and she wants to increase their salaries using a combination of federal and state funding.

Should we increase teacher pay? Can we afford it? What's the best way to do it? Thanks to Harris, every Democratic candidate will have to address those issues, and Republicans will have to figure out how to fight against a salary increase without sounding like they hate teachers and children. The discussion and debate will increase the possibility that teachers around the country will see a substantial pay increase sometime in the not-too-distant future.

Thank you, Kamala Harris.

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