"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Corporate Education Reform Poster State

Since Lamar Alexander served as Governor in the 1980s, Tennessee has been at the forefront of corporate education reform.  Tennessee was in the first wave of states to initiate mandatory student competency on standardized tests in order to get a diploma, and it was one of the first to ram down a career ladder program that ended up disproportionately rewarding teachers who worked in the whitest and leafiest suburbs.

Alexander's focus on shiny new things in education earned him the title of Education Governor, while allowing the state to shrink the proportion of funding going to education.  More state money was available, then, to build an economy based on the hospital and prison industries, along with foreign investment in bringing auto manufacturing to Tennessee. 

Alexander's gubernatorial replacement, Ned Ray McWherter, wanted to take on the mantle, too, of Education Governor, if he could find a cheap way to do it. Enter the tobacco-chewing agriculture statistician from UT Knoxville named Bill Sanders, who had been trying for years to sell a statistical formulae for measuring the effects of various treatments on the subsequent growth of ag products, from soybeans to cattle. It was called value-added modeling (VAM), and Sanders promised that he could accurately and cheaply measure growth in academic achievement, while sorting out the bad farmers teachers whose crops of students remained stunted.

Sanders offered the perfect education solution by not requiring major investments in teacher pay, facilities, resources, curriculum, or teacher preparation.  The state could continue to squeeze the education budget as it continued to avoid any talk of a state income tax, even as it expanded the prison industry, the hospital industry, and foreign industries looking for sweet deals to lure companies to Tennessee.

VAM became law in 1992, with Sanders' proprietary algorithm written into state statute.

The details to this sordid case of ed reform run amok can be found in The Mismeasure of Education.  The story line in Part II details the contours and dimensions of the education funding shortfalls, and it details the State's commitment to low and entirely regressive taxes.  It also traces the State's desperate attraction to and dependence on federal grants, or any grants, to fill that great education funding chasm.

The State's efforts to find outside sources to fund public education reached a zenith in 2010, when TN was one of the first two states to win a Race to the Top grant, worth $501,000,000.  Another $90 million came to Memphis from the Gates Foundation, money that was used to blow up the Memphis Public Schools and to build a hothouse for growing corporate welfare charter schools.

With the RTTT grants that have since dried up, the State set about to create a charter school incubator (Achievement School District (ASD), now funded by the State, that will hatch a steady supply of cuckoo corporate charters that taxpayers will have to feed for as long as these interlopers continue to feed from and foul the public education nest.  

The ASD began 6 years ago with the big lie that, by pure force of will and hard fists, the charter zealots would, in a five period, “ catapult the bottom 5% of schools in Tennessee straight to the top 25% in the state.”  

Now that the pipe dream has been exposed for what it is, the ASD has shifted its sights to a goal that no one can accurately assess, since no one knows what it means: "By 2025, we will close the opportunity gaps long persistent in Tennessee’s public education."  Do they plan for every poor kid to be in a zero tolerance unregulated "no excuses" corporate charter school with uncertified teachers?

And what of the grand scheme that began in 1992 to make Tennessee schools world class with the help of a magic statistical formula?  Well, the formula is still part of a state statute, and its owner, Bill Sanders, has retired to a handsome farm estate a few miles south of Nashville.  SAS in Cary, NC is now in charge of selling the magic formula to other cities and states.  Business is off.

As for Lamar Alexander, Tennessee's education pioneer and political profiteer.  He's doing fine.  In fact, as co-chair of the Senate education committee, Lamar is set to smooth the way for the confirmation of a billionaire who hates public education to become the next, and likely last, Secretary of Education.   I can't get a call through to his office, for some reason.

What about the schools in Tennessee, you ask.  This headline and chart are from Ed Week, which offers the latest Quality Counts report:

Tennessee Earns a C-Minus on State Report Card, Ranks 36th in Nation

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