Sunday, October 09, 2011

So-called LA's Promise isn't all that promising

"The bottom line is clear: In attempting to change the mission of public education from one focused on educating kids to one focused on generating private profit, corporate leaders in the 'reform' movement are pursuing a shrewd investment strategy. Millions of dollars go into campaign contributions and propaganda outfits that push 'reform,' and, if successful, those 'reforms' guarantee Wall Street and their investment vehicles much bigger returns for the long haul." — David Sirota

LA's Promise aka MLA Partners Charlatan Board Member Tom Vander Ark and former President and CEO Mike McGilliardPerhaps the most entertaining aspect of listening to the malevolent and misinformed rhetoric of the corporate education reform crowd is how they've mastered the art of elusive promises and shifting goals. Pin them down on any point and it turns out that that wasn't their point all along. They'll vehemently argue against research showing class size matters, but then shamelessly tout low class sizes in their glossy brochures and marketing materials. They claim they're open to every student, until they're exposed for openly discriminating against children with special needs, then they'll make specious and mendacious arguments that overwhelming evidence of charter school discrimination is a "manipulation of data." Even in terms of their singular obsession on test scores the corporate cabal keeps moving the target. They'll use low test scores as cover for closing down or privatizing public schools, but have found myriad ways of explaining away their own failures in this regard (of course we social justice advocates call for an abolishment of high stakes standardized testing).

An interesting case study is the beleaguered LA's Promise, a colonial project that while not a charter corporation per se, may as well be given the top-down and neoliberal methodologies it utilizes for running its subject schools. LA's Promise's former President and CEO Mike McGilliard is somewhat unique in that he is one of the few people working for the privatizers who is actually willing to debate with public education advocates and social justice activists. While he is certainly glib, he is at the very least courageous, since most people in his position avoid any interaction with the community as a rule. We first encountered Mr. McGilliard when he took exception to my tweet regarding a somewhat convoluted article in the LA Times on how some public schools were marginally outpacing their supposed reform (read privatization) counterparts. We're been alternatively corresponding and trading polemics ever since, but that's not of interest here. Instead, let's look first at how after all McGilliard's complaints that LA's Promise was being unfairly judged by the LA Times on a single performance metric, yet just weeks later he was shamelessly boasting about about a different, but favorable metric. We'll also look at his accusations that anyone criticizing LA's Promise's heavy handed top down management is a whiner, but then whines when it's clear that LA's Promise's management is exposed as incompetent bumblers. We'll also take a brief look at LA's Promise's board and other nefarious characters involved in their orbit.

No more than a few weeks after the Blume and Poindexter piece that McGilliard objected to came out, was he bombastically crowing about the combined API gains of two of his former schools in The High Price of 84 API Points. He goes on to call the modest gains "undeniable success," called LA's Promise a "frontrunner," and in another post where he viciously disparages teachers he went as far as to say:

"give LA's Promise credit for the massive increase in scores"

Massive? Hardly. More to the point, McGilliard, like Blume and Poindexter, focuses narrowly on marginal increases in API scores and CAHSEE rates. In other words he is guilty of the exact same thing he was so furious about. It's hard to fathom someone so quick to accuse others of both hyperbole and hysteria, but so smugly oblivious to their own.

Let's look at what what McGilliard asserts as "undeniable success." One of the easiest ways of discerning if privatizers are playing with figures, be it APIs, CAHSEE passage, graduation rates, college placement rates, [1] etc. is to look at their SAT scores and remediation rates — that is the number of students having to retake high school level courses once they get to college.

LA's Promise Schools SAT and CSU Remediation Results

LA's Promise SATs are below the LAUSD average for 2009-10
LA's Promise West Adams Preparatory High SAT Composite 1,128
LA's Promise Manual Arts Senior High SAT Composite 1,171
Los Angeles Unified School District's SAT Composite 1,334

Their mediocre SAT scores are nothing compared to their astonishing remediation rates:

Fall 2010 West Adams Preparatory High Admits to CSU
Proficient in English 09%
Proficient in Mathematics 18%

Or 91% and 82% NOT proficient in English and math, respectively.

Fall 2010 Manual Arts Senior High Admits to CSU
Proficient in English 03%
Proficient in Mathematics 10%

Or 97% and 90% NOT proficient in English and math, respectively.

When public education advocates see such numbers, we typically suspect that an institution has been forcing their teachers to teach to the test (in this case the CSTs and the CAHSEE). Teaching to the test is tantamount to the Banking Model of Education discussed in Paulo Freire's prodigious work. More to the point, it shows that the obsession with APIs (and the flawed concepts behind the right-wing legislation No Child Child Left Behind and Race to the Top) is wrongheaded at best.

None of that stops McGilliard from ranting:

I only resigned from LA's Promise last month. In fact, I was still celebrating the awesome academic gains we just got, good numbers that I thought would finally shut up all the negative chatter from the haters like Board Member LaMotte and her cronies. I mean, the school actually achieved undeniable results in CAHSEE pass rates, attendance, API growth, and other metrics this last year. But today's articles by Howard signal a strange turn of events indeed: even though LA's Promise delivered substantially better results than the District and the other reform efforts, LaMotte and unnamed "District leaders" want to give the school back to the District.

I'm confused. Isn't the increase in scores what we are all hoping for? Doesn't that mean the reform is working?

There's no need for McGilliard's feigned confusion. The remediation rates above pretty much bear out that LA's Promise's so-called reform isn't working. Clearly, if these students were being educated as opposed to being taught to the test, we'd see better than single digit proficiency in English. Perhaps McGilliard and company should familiarize themselves with some of Dr. Krashen's work.

To be fair, McGilliard isn't alone in the unsubstantiated hyperbole department. The organization's slick marketing department bills the organization as such: "LA's Promise is a leader in the national school turnaround movement, showing undeniable results, rapid improvements and early dramatic gains." As we saw above, this is pure perfidy.

Shifting Demographics Further Confound LA's Promise's Claims

There's more to this story. My colleague Caroline Grannan, a respected journalist and Parents Across America cofounder, had some very interesting observations to make about LA's Promise's API jump. Her first email:

My friend has been following the doings at this quasi-charter school due to their association with Jamie Oliver, since she's into school food issues. An observation:

Up about 50 points - BUT (isn't there always a BUT) if you click on the link to last year's API, you can see that they lost almost 400 kids since last year. For a school which was over 1900, that is a loss of more than 20% of their kids in just one year, including what appears to be about 1/3 of their AA [African American] population. So one has to wonder what, if any, effect that had on their big jump.

A good question is why and how they lost 20% of their school population!

McGilliard was kind enough to respond:

And your friends numbers are off. We are enrolled at about 2500-2600 at West Adams. We've always, regrettably, had a small number of African American children. But that number isn't declining or increasing in any substantial way. The growth is real... our CAHSEE shows it too for our tenth grade. Our college going rates, our graduation rates. It all lines up.

I wouldn't call it quasi charter either. it's full union contracts. Just staffed with a bunch of great teachers and a strong leadership team.

Grannan wrote back in two separate emails:

The enrollment figures came from the API and STAR test reports posted at the CDE; they may not be accurate, but we didn't make them up either.

The numbers given were for students in the TESTED grades (9-11); I assume the 25-2600 number is total enrollment, which would also include 12th graders.

This school demographic report for 2010-11 (2011 growth) shows 1723 enrolled in the tested grades on the first day of STAR testing , with 1673 actually tested

The comparable report from 2009-10 (2010 growth) shows enrollment in the tested grades of 2146, with 2100 tested.

How is this not 400 fewer tested students in the tested grades, and 427 fewer tested?

The only thing I can think of that would explain it is if there had been a much bigger class of seniors last year; those kids would have been tested as 11th graders in spring 2010, but not as seniors in spring 2011; the pig moving through the python. Is that the case, and if not, what's the explanation?

Enrollment by ethnicity 2010-11
total enrollment 2491
2221 Latino
227 African-American

(the figures show that the number of African-American students is declining every year -- last year's 12th grade, class of '11, had 67 African-American students; in 11th grade, the class of '12 had 65 African-American students; in 10th grade, the class of '13 had 50 African-American students, in 9th grade, the class of '14 had 45 African-American students.)

Going back two years to 08-09 via the drop-down menu.
total enrollment was 2663
2312  Latino
282 African-American ( 51 in 12th grade (class of 09), 43 in 11th grade (class of 10), 106 in 10th grade(class of 11), and 82 in 9th grade (class of 12)
So the class of 11 lost 39 (of 106, or about 37%) African-American students between 08-09 and 10-11
The class of 12 lost 17 (of 82, about 21%) African-American students in the same 2 years.

Go back another year to 07-08: when the class of 11 entered as 9th graders, there were 150 African-American students; by 2011 when they graduated, it was 67. Assuming they all graduated, that is a drop of 83 African-American students, or 55% of the number who entered in 9th grade did not graduate 4 years later.

McGilliard's response:

Yes. See enrollment of our senior class which was unusually large. Far exceeded schools capacity when they came in as our schools first 9th graders.

Regarding AA enrollment: if you think those declines are substantive in some way, I suppose I'd need to hear your argument.

At any rate, not sure what the argument is. School, made 113 point API growth over three yrs. With very high attendance. Not bad!

While neither Grannan nor myself are accusing LA's Promise of culling their student population like Judy Burton's corporate charters do, it's pretty outrageous for McGilliard to say "At any rate, not sure what the argument is." The argument is as follows: it's disingenuous at best to boast of API growth while simultaneously these schools have undergone rapid and radical changes in demographics. Primarily because there is the possibility of a correlation between the two changes. While not comparable to vile privatizer Ben Chavis style ethnic cleansing, there's something disconcerting about such demographic shifts in general.

Mismanagement a hallmark of unelected boards

On top of abject remediation rates and suspect demographic changes, LA's Promise has been in the news quite a lot lately. In all fairness to Mr. McGilliard, the recent stumbles of the quasi-charter organization have all occurred after his resignation. That hasn't kept him from chiming in on these developments though. LA's Promise corporate management team, many of whom have little or no teaching experience, have created such abject conditions at Manual Art HS, that even the far-right privatization cheerleaders at the LA Times had to document it. At Manual Arts High, a caring teacher is at the end of his rope exposes horrors like class sizes of 60 to 65 students, a dearth of textbooks, unclean conditions, and rampant overcrowding. McGilliard, instead of placing blame squarely on mismanagement by LA's Promise's board, berates the dispirited teachers for "whining" and posits that they "lack the balls." He certainly does have a penchant for blaming the victim. With absolutely no sense of irony, McGilliard reproduced the following indictment by a Manual Arts HS teacher on his blog:

I believe the Rudyard Kipling poem ["White Man's Burden"] is an analogy to [your] goal to colonize South LA from Pico to Slauson...

...honestly I get sick to my stomach when I look at you. Maybe it is the arrogance of your white, male, class privilege that thinks you have all the answers for the people of south central or perhaps it's... the horror of what is possible in all white folks socialized under white supremacy.

The management at the LA's Promise run Manual Arts was so incompetent that even Wall Street golden child Superintendent Deasy was concerned enough that LAUSD is now intervening directly as documented in L.A. Unified to retake considerable control of Manual Arts High. McGilliard took exception to this as well. Always lost in these debates is the student voice. The article quotes Senior Andrea Leyva as saying:

"My education is at risk," she said. L.A.'s Promise "claim[s] to want to do a community turnaround. They've definitely done that, but not in a positive way."

Out of the mouths of babes.

Who's Running LA's Promise?

Typical of unelected boards charged with running neoliberal quasi-private schools like charters in Los Angeles, LA's Promise's twelve member board doesn't have a single educator. Instead their board is dominated by entertainment industry types (here in Los Angeles simply known as "industry") with some investment capitalists, bankers, CEOs, and a couple of corporate lawyers thrown in for good measure. Their Board of Advisors has the same dearth of educators or even people remotely connected to education. Most frightening among their decision makers is former Gates Foundation charlatan, the technobabbling Tom Vander Ark. Everything we need to about how Vander Ark operates is summed up in this New York Times quote:

But after spending more than $1.5 million of investors’ money on consultants and lawyers, Mr. Vander Ark, 52, has walked away from the project, and the schools will not open as planned this fall, leaving others involved stunned and frustrated.

Talk about take the money and run.

Because of their unelected board's own extensive personal wealth, close connections to celebrities and their deep ties to the entertainment industry, [2] LA's Promise is very good at fundraising. However, being able to raise funds at lavish galas doesn't translate to good pedagogy, neither does being cutthroat capitalists managing a school setting where collaboration and cooperation are of far more use than competition.

"For the truly humanist educator and the authentic revolutionary, the object of action is the reality to be transformed by them together with other people — not other men and women themselves. The oppressors are the ones who act upon the people to indoctrinate them and adjust them to a reality which must remain untouched." — Paulo Freire

Instead of a board comprised of educators, community members, and parents, LA's Promise's board is a paternalistic group of wealthy outsiders that are more than a little melanin deficient — and McGilliard wonders why some of his critics keep quoting Kipling?


[1] In fact LA's Promise's home page now boasts that they've "tripled college attendance rate at West Adams Prep." Accessed 2011-10-08. Too bad those they've actually "prepared" for college are in the single digit percentages for proficiency in English. Perhaps they should read chapter two of Emery and Ohanian's book.

[1] To wit the LA Times piece details Deasy's fears of crossing LA's Promise's well heeled Megan Chernin.

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