Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The ConnCan con: MinnCon next?

I've read enough propaganda on education, seen enough failures justified, and witnessed the eternal misplaced value put on charter schools and right wing generated "solutions" to know when I'm being peddled a load of bull. Such was the feeling reading this post about a Minneapolis Foundation education event from the usually reliable Dane Smith over at the Growth & Justice website.

The post tells of a Minnesota Meeting event where the guest speaker was one Alex Johnston from a group called ConnCan. Johnston gave mostly political advice to Minnesota "reformers" on how to get the legislature to pass laws designed to increase the number of charter schools and devalue and pressurize teachers. The Minneapolis Foundation's orchestration  of Johnston's visit (more on that below) appears to be a prelude to its creation of a similar MinnCan attack on school teachers, apparently to be sprung on the next legislative session.

On its website the Minneapolis Foundation invites viewers to watch the recorded Minnesota Meeting featuring Johnston, saying
"Alex Johnston from ConnCan spoke at a June 2010 Minnesota Meeting regarding ConnCan's success in reducing the achievement gap in Connecticut."
Is that true? Has ConnCan "reduced the achievement gap in Connecticut"? According to ConnCan's own most recent annual report, and the first few lines of Mr Johnston's talk, no. Figures from the US Department of Education show that in 1998 the achievement gap in Connecticut was 32 points; by 2003 it was 31 points; in 2007 the gap was 30 points, where it still sits today, according to ConnCan itself. What ConnCan has been successful at in five years of existence is running political campaigns aimed getting more charter schools, more charter school students, more state money for charter schools, and loosened standards for teacher certification. It led a successful political campaign in 2010 for just those purposes.Yet despite getting its way with public funds, by its own admission it has not lowered the achievement gap in Connecticut.

In fact, it would be very unlikely if any of ConnCan's so-called achievements bore academic fruit. Take charter schools, for example -  ConnCan's chief focus. The biggest study ever done on charter schools nationwide found that for every student who does better at a charter school, two do worse. In Minnesota, in particular, children of color and of poverty have been hurt by charter schools.

Minnesota has also been plagued by dozens of failed charter schools replete with financial improprieties, self-dealing, operators going to jail, and students subject to religious indoctrination. Minnesota, the birthplace of charters two decades ago, tried to rein them in in the last legislative session, only to see a further politicization of the process, resulting in Bill Cooper, the extreme former head of state Republican Party, controlling 16 schools - more than 10 percent of all charters in the state -  and angling for more. In one hopeful move, the City of St Paul is now withdrawing its sponsorship of charters.

ConnCan has latched onto the three things that "reform" has come to mean in our education discourse  -  charter schools, Teach for America teachers and teacher "accountability. The group claims that focusing on those three areas will yield the best results for closing the academic achievement gap in Connecticut. But don't be surprised that the gap hasn't changed with ConnCan - the real goals are to privatize public education and destroy one of the last unionized sectors of the economy: public school teachers. If you're searching for the real reasons for racial achievement gaps, try looking at similar disparities in income, wealth, employment , law and health care.

The folly of ConnCan's agenda has been documented many times. The most comprehensive study of charters, by Stanford University, found that overall charters performed worse than regular public schools. The charter "experiment" has come to an end - it has failed.

Teach for America, another of ConnCan's obsessions - derided as "Teach for a while" by professionals, is an effort to put more poorly trained teachers in our classrooms. Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University did a study in 2005 of TFA teachers in Houston, Texas. She found that
"Uncertified TFA recruits are less effective than certified teachers, and perform about as well as other uncertified teachers. TFA recruits who become certified after 2 or 3 years do about as well as other certified teachers in supporting student achievement gains; however, nearly all of them leave within three years. Teachers' effectiveness appears strongly related to the preparation they have received for teaching."
Deborah Appleman, an educational studies professor at Carlton College ridiculed assumptions made about  TFA in a City Pages article, wondering how, among other things, "Students who are most in need will do the best with the most underprepared teachers in the country."

Those would be the same classrooms where we blame the teachers for children's failures. If teachers really were the problem with children not learning on schedule, putting more poorly trained teachers in charge would logically only make matters worse. It only makes sense if your true goal is to shrink the ranks of teachers unions. How would Teach for America teachers be held to ConnCan's third pillar, teacher "accountability" ? Most only stick around for a few years. Those who plan to leave have nothing at stake.

How education discourse came to this point is a long story filled with all kinds of deception and outright lying by Republicans who wished to defund Democrats by destroying the teachers' unions. They have brought along some urban minorities who have historically suffered from racism and disinvestment by the predominant white Protestant society. Others, particularly politically aware Blacks, have recognized the danger of the "Fruit of the poisoned tree" dangled in front of them by savvy Republicans.

I'm betting if you asked the attendees of Johnston's talk at the Minnesota Meeting whether ConnCan had reduced the racial learning gap in Connecticut most would say yes. But even Johnston admits ConnCan hasn't (my transcription of his talk is here). In fact, in his talk he spoke less about the racial gap, or what could be done about it, outside his political goals. His talk, rather than being about racial achievement gaps, was about political tactics. For a 501(c)(3) charity that is supposed to be out of bounds. But legislative gains to create charters, loosen teacher training laws, and "holding teachers accountable" are Johnston's real achievements.

One look at ConnCan's board of directors and advisers show's who's really calling the shots here, and what the true agenda is. The board of directors is comprised of 12 people, all of them are from the financial and investment industries.  Not one of the board members comes from any sectors relevant to public education. These are the people who, on deep background, we're supposed to let, according to Johnston, "redefine education in Minnesota."  Given the corruption and incompetence shown by the finance industry over the past decade, one can only hope they are better at education than investing, although there is no evidence to suggest they might be.

What's really telling is the presence of Howard Fuller and John R. Danielson, movement conservatives connected to the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, on ConnCan's board of advisers. For a taste of the Bradley Foundation consider that it funded and promoted the scientific racist Charles Murray, whose book The Bell Curve argued that Blacks are genetically intellectually inferior to other races.  Fuller is the Bradley Foundation's minority front-man for public education privatization and shrinking teachers' unions. He has received millions of dollars from the Bradley Foundation to sit on the boards of organizations like ConnCan. Is that the kind of person who should be addressing a racial achievement gap? The Bradley Foundation's choice?

His presence would be alarming enough, but the inclusion of  Danielson, Director at the Center for Education Reform, which has received more than a half million dollars from the Bradley Foundation, underscores ConnCan's connection to the larger conservative movement.  ConnCann also has connections to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, also funded by the Bradley Foundation, home of perpetual school choice and anti teacher activist Chester Finn. It is listed as a funder in the ConnCan annual report, and has produced its own reports commending the organization.  ConnCan has also received grants from the Kirby Family Foundation. Teach for America itself has recieved millions of dollars from the same conservative philanthropies that fund Fuller, Fordham and CER.

One of the tactics of the conservative movement is to spread its message with national campaigns, organizations and people. ConnCan brags about its performance of this function in its annual report, showing how Johnston gave presentations about its methods in 20 different states. Which raises the questions of how and why ConnCan was invited to speak in a heavily promoted event in the Twin Cities sponsored by the Minneapolis Foundation. A friendly person at the foundation basically would not tell me who initiated the event, or precisely how it came to be.

Johnston's speech in the Twin Cities was sponsored by the Minneapolis Foundation, through it's Minnesota Meeting project. It was co-sponsored by the Itasca Project, an "employer led alliance" composed of "primarily private-sector CEOs."  It describes itself as  "virtual organization" that "has no standing agenda, employs no staff and owns no real estate." In other words - it is almost totally unaccountable and opaque. Inquiries about Itasca are directed to McKinsey & Company, "a global management consulting firm that focuses on solving issues of concern to senior management."  According to Wikipedia, McKinsey maintains "a carefully crafted and low-profile external image, which also protects it from public scrutiny."

Johnston was introduced at the Minnesota Meeting by Mary Brainerd, "CEO of Health Partners and chair of Itasca project." In fact, Health Partners was given $100,000 by the Minneapolis Foundation in 2008 (according to its most recent IRS 990)  "to fund the Itasca Project for Management and initiatives."  A deeper look at the Minneapolis Foundation's schedule of grants reveals $146,000 to Twin Cities Public Television, another partner in the Minnesota Meeting, which broadcast Johnston's speech five times, and $71,000 to the Peace Foundation, whose president, Sondra Samuels, was on the discussion panel following the talk. The panel also included Bernadeia Johnson, the superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools, which also receives grants from the foundation. Even Growth & Justice, where Dane Smith speculated the ConnCan meeting might hold political portent, received $38,000 from the foundation in 2008. It's safe to assume that most of Johnston's other appearances across the country were put together using a similar method.

Theoretically there's nothing wrong with these grants, and transparency can go a long way towards alleviating suspicions of covert political motives; unfortunately, none of these grants or connections were disclosed at the Minnesota Meeting. Was that an oversight, or did the foundation wish to give the impression that its agenda is more widely accepted than chiefly among recipients of its grants? This opacity hints at a larger agenda for the Minneapolis Foundation, one which it is apparently not comfortable admitting to. Revealing that it in effect orchestrated the propagandistic, political ConnCan event in service to a conservative agenda aimed at beating up on public school teachers would no doubt put the foundation in a poor light.

A spokeswoman for the foundation wouldn't say whether recipients of their grants were encouraged to attend this meeting.  Even if they weren't it probably wasn't necessary. Grant recipients understand the underlying goals and expectations of their funders. Using these methods foundations can blunt the potential of progressive change by co-opting liberal organizations, giving the appearance of poor and minority support for regressive government policies, changing organizations' ultimate goals, or redirecting their energy in ways that are less threatening to the rich and corporate elite. At the Minnesota Meeting featuring Johnston there wasn't one person present who questioned his false assertions about the efficacy of charter schools or Teach for America.

The Minneapolis Foundation's funding and sponsorship of the ConnCan Minnesota Meeting, and its opacity about its own grants to the participants  -  raises important issues about education discourse in Minnesota.  The event itself was based on a lie - a lie that is still repeated on the foundation's website - that ConnCan had succeeded "in reducing the achievement gap in Connecticut."

The notion that the foundation is now creating, secretly, apparently, a Minnesota version (to be called MinnCan?) is pretty creepy, especially since this is an election season and voters might want to know whether the candidates they will be voting for will support such an effort. Dane Smith wrote in his Growth & Justice post that "a MinnCAN initiative is  likely to be front-and-center in the 2011 legislative session, regardless of who wins the elections in November."

Politically, the foundation might be wise to keep their initiative under wraps before people can vote on its ideas - right wing education "deform" has proven unpopular in recent elections where it has been an issue.

While the Minneapolis Foundation might be politically sensitive to the unpopularity of its proposed solutions, it acts like it is completely unaware of the scholarly evidence pointing to the ineffectiveness of its ideas. Honest discourse would require confronting the scholarly evidence against charter schools, for example, including the Stanford study, or including people like Diane Ravitch, who the spokesperson I talked to from the foundation had never even heard of.

Ravitch is one of the premier educational historians in the country. She was a true believer in all the goals of ConnCann and was for many years a movement conservative. That is until about five years ago, when she abruptly changed course and denounced school choice, Teach for America and the like. She came to realize there was no magic bullet in charter schools, and that they had failed in their experiment to bridge achievement gaps, or even provide as good an education as regular public schools.

She recommended discontinuing all choice and privatization reforms. Money and effort should instead be focused, wrote Ravitch, on reducing poverty and helping poor and minority families.

Ignoring that your rhetorical opponents have a point, even when they have the scholarly research on their sides, is not a sign of strength, which is probably why groups like ConnCan now make political rather than educational arguments. The fact that the Minneapolis Foundation is helping them spread this disinformation, and may be planning to inflict such an organization on Minnesota, is doubly disappointing. Note to Minnesota school teachers: You've been warned.

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 A note about the Minneapolis Foundation  Political and ideological polarization are acknowledged to be real problems in present day America. Looking through the grant list of the Minneapolis Foundation it is undeniable that they fund some good things, including liberal causes, like Outfront Minnesota and minority empowerment organizations. But they also fund extreme right wing organizations like the Center of the American Experiment, the Minnesota Free Market Institute, Focus on the Family, and the Minnesota Family Institute (an anti-gay rights group). It kind of makes you wonder if the foundation isn't contributing to the stark polarization by essentially funding both sides in an ideological war, then sitting back and decrying the conflict. That might make political sense to the people who direct the foundation, but it calls into question whether it truly believes in anything other than its own self-aggrandizement.


Alec Timmerman said...

It's maddening because we know exactly what turns around public schools. None of these folks, including Obama, eally want reform. they want a return to what they experienced as success. All the policy makers had a 13 year plus "internship" in teaching where they got to observe a practicing expert every day, and all the policy makers were above average students in the system they observed. They don't want reform. They want a return to that influential, sage on the stage teacher they had in high school that came in and lectured and changed their world. The isolated teacher working in competition against other teachers has been the norm for 100 years and it doesn't work for most students.

A guy named Marzanno did a meta-analysis of 30 years of research and the indisputable results are that teachers working in community and collaboration to design instruction create good teachers and effective schools. So, while we know what works, guys like Arne Duncan are trying to perpetuate a return to a dysfunctional system of isolated competition. Looking at student results is crucial, and not in a competitve/punitive way. Marzanno's "what works in Schools" and the DuFour's "On Common Ground" should be required reading for any policy maker. It's research backed reforms that work.

Alec Timmerman said...

Well, as I said, we know what works from Marzano and the DuFours. Now we know what doesn't work, and is a waste of money: merit pay.


blogspotdog said...

<span><span>Teacher bonuses fail to boost test scores</span>


Phoenix said...

It's about gutting the unions -- all unions -- to appeal to corporate donors who may or may not be socially progressive but who hate the minimum wage every bit as much as does Tom Emmer.