Innovation Ecosystem/Opinion

Will public education in RI become a corporate commodity?

A deep dive into the corporate board game being played behind the scenes as part of public education reform in RI

Photo by Richard Asinof

The current curriculum being used to teach English language learners in Providence high schools is Springboard, an advanced placement [AP] prep program of studies designed for accelerated classes. It is not designed for struggling students, and especially not for those acquiring a new language. It is the equivalent of using Beowulf to teach kindergarten students how to read, according to Hope High School teacher Betsy Taylor. Why is it being used? Apparently because of the need to comply with a U.S. Department of Justice consent decree against Providence to teach English language learners

By Betsy Taylor
Posted 8/19/19
In a follow-up story, Hope High School teacher Betsy Taylor takes a deep dive into the corporate forces at play in the effort by the state to take over the Providence school system, making visible and transparent the connections to a not-yet-public agenda.
Why has there been so little investigation by the news media into the corporate players involved in pushing public education reform in Rhode Island? Which corporate players are involved in the behind the scenes efforts linked to the state takeover of the Providence city schools? What voice will teachers and students have in the new structure being developed by Commissioner Infante-Green to run the Providence school system? When will the root causes of the lack of educational attainment tied to the impacts of childhood lead poisoning be addressed? What would be the response if it was to be discovered that Aramark, responsible for cleaning Providence schools, was purposely and illegally diluting its cleaning supplies?
When Betsy Taylor first spoke up at Mayor Elorza’s news conference, and then told her story in ConvergenceRI, it changed the conversation around what was happening in the efforts surrounding the planned takeover by the state of the Providence schools.
Her latest article, detailing some of the corporate players involved in the apparent game of monopoly around public education reform, will hopefully also serve to illuminate some of the not-yet-public agendas at play.
Asking questions and speaking up are a critical part of our democratic process and our hopes to improve and to preserve a system of public education.

PROVIDENCE – When I stepped up at Mayor Jorge Elorza’s news conference on Friday morning, July 19, held in front of Hope High School and, in an impromptu outburst, spoke what was on my mind, I had no idea that it would lead to a summer full of radio talk shows, article writing, research, frank discussions with teachers around the district, and meetings with the Mayor, Interim Superintendent Frances Gallo, and the chief academic officer of Providence Schools.

So far, no invitation has been extended to meet with the state commissioner of education, Angélica Infante-Green, but I would welcome that opportunity.

I would love to have an open dialogue about why there seems to be something “fishy” about Rhode Island’s educational system – and I’m not talking about our official state appetizer, calamari.

Following my recent appearance on the Tara Granahan show on WPRO on Wednesday, Aug. 7, during which I raised questions about wanting to know more about the funding for the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy report, its sponsors, and the agenda behind it, I have been called a conspiracy theorist, outspoken, wrong, ludicrous, and I’m sure a host of other colorful things; but that’s OK.

No real cultural change has ever occurred without a messy divergence of opinions. I firmly stand by my belief that if you notice a pattern involving questionable motives that affect the lives and livelihoods of an entire group of people, then you have a moral and ethical obligation to bring such information into the public spotlight.

It is my hope that this article prompts readers to broaden their perspectives and to shed light on the how and why of public educational reform and its questionable outcomes in Rhode Island. Who will benefit from the changes? Is there a hidden – or rather, a not yet fully public – agenda? How are the efforts now underway in Rhode Island part of a larger national effort targeting public school education reform by some of the nation’s largest corporations?

What is my biggest worry?
That the education of our children is being used as a pawn to make certain corporations even more wealthy.

I write this as a teacher who works daily with some of the most vulnerable students – English language learners and special education students. The reality is that 30 percent of the students at Hope High School are English language learners, and another 30 percent are special education students.

Down the rabbit hole
It seems that during my interview with Tara Granahan, I said some things that rattled a few cages and resulted in a big pushback. If there is no truth to my statements, then what is the threat?

Why is viewing education through a critical lens, to ask questions about the process and the players, so threatening to some of the educational leaders and talk radio pundits in our state?

We need to ask ourselves why viewing these issues through a critical lens, to question the process and players, is so threatening to some.

To be clear, this is what I said, word for word, on Tara’s talk radio show:

“We also have to follow who is funding the Johns Hopkins report. There are deep ties between charter schools, for example, Achievement First, and the people who funded the Johns Hopkins report, and the Chiefs for Change, that is a [former Gov.] Jeb Bush initiative down in Florida that is anti-public school, pro-charter school. So, this is the tip of the iceberg that we are discussing and looking at now. It is part of a much greater problem.”

The next morning, on Thursday, Aug. 8, Tara Granahan’s colleague at WPRO, Gene Valicenti, attacked me on air during his show, disparaging what I had said during my interview with Tara. [For the record, Valicenti has never talked with me; he has never reached out to me; and it seems as if he had never read my story published in the July 22 edition of ConvergenceRI, “A teacher speaks her mind.” [See link below to the story.]

Getting the facts straight
In writing this article, I hope to clear up any confusion about what was termed to be my “ludicrous ideas” and labeled inaccurately as a “conspiracy theory” – and share the hard facts that support my questions.

For sure, this is not a complete report that I am writing. That would take an entire team of researchers. But I’m doing what I can to bring some possibly overlooked facts into the public eye.

There exists a massive iceberg of global corporate connections, and we are looking at the tiniest tippy top of the gargantuan structure that lies beneath it. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of the Titanic and choose speed and hubris over the best interests of those traveling on board.

Who funded the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy study of the Providence Schools?

It was The Partnership for Rhode Island, a new nonprofit created in 2017, which provided $50,000 for the study and an additional $15,000 for the “community meetings” held by Infante-Green to promote the urgency of the findings to support having the state take over the Providence schools.

The group is composed of 12 CEOs from most of the state’s top private employers; its members include 11 white men and one white woman. [I only mention skin color because of all the attention and negativity that Providence has been getting due to its shortage of teaching candidates of color.]

To belong to this elite partnership, a member must pay $100,000 per year. Its current members include such players as the CEOs of Bank of America, Amica, CVS, IGT, and Hasbro, among others. Why is a group of CEOs, whose elite partnership has a stated goal to: “boost economic development in the state of Rhode Island,” involved in funding such a report on the state of the Providence schools? What will they get in return? What was their motivation?

And, one more question: Why did the Partnership for Rhode Island gift $15,000 to Commissioner Infante-Green to assist her in her communications efforts to drum up support for the state takeover of the Providence Schools? Does it really cost that much to coordinate eight community meetings at school cafeterias and auditoriums?

• Who initially approached the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy to conduct the study?

The answer: Gov. Gina Raimondo, the same person who hired Angélica Infante-Green to be the new state education commissioner. Infante-Green is a “principal” in the group, Chiefs for Change, one of the key collaborating groups listed on the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy website. Guess who is also listed as a key principal of Chiefs for Change? Deborah Gist, the former state education commissioner in Rhode Island. And, who developed Chiefs for Change initiative? Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

• Are there other connections with the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy that we should be paying more attention to?

The quick answer is yes. Johns Hopkins has a new certification program that offers a specialization in the administration of independent schools [read that as charter schools]. This is interesting because Gov. Raimondo’s husband, Andy Moffit, is a former partner at McKinsey [a massive educational reform corporation that also dabbles in biopharmaceuticals], but is now the chief academic advisor at Pearson, a company whose mission is to “unite education and business.”

Moffit is deeply entrenched in the business of educational reform. Public education reform is now becoming a huge business – a multi-billion-dollar-per-year business where students are said to come first, but in reality, like patients in our health care system, they are cogs in a commodity-driven approach to education.

Pearson, [a British-based company that hawks its wares in the U.S. and is under investigation for tax avoidance and the use of off-shore tax havens], owns the College Board, [funded in part by the Gates Foundation, Walmart, and Bank of America], which, in turn, has created the Springboard educational curriculum being used in Providence high schools.

• How is Pearson related to high-stakes standardized testing?

Pearson and ACT [ACT is Pearson’s sole competitor in the high stakes testing racket] are certified monopolies, ensuring that the SAT and all of its expensive paraphernalia, prep materials, and study guides are required in as many states and colleges as possible. This is even after multiple studies have shown that the SAT scores are a worse indicator for college success than school grades and extracurricular activities.

•Want to do well on the SAT so you can get into elite schools and make lucrative connections?

You’d better be able to afford a private tutor to teach you how to take the test. Yes, the SAT is designed so that one can’t pass it with a decent score without intense coaching on how to take the test, and not what’s actually being assessed on the test. MIT recently studied algorithms in the scoring of the 25-minute timed essay. Researchers found that length and not content is what determines one’s score. In fact, many of the essays used in the study were chock-full of nonsensical ramblings and inaccurate information. This is one reason why our teach-to-the-test culture only serves to undermine best practices for teaching and learning.

In 2018 the College Board was busted for selling student data gleaned from the mandatory taking of their cash cow, the SAT. It was discovered that they were charging 45 cents per student name, with their largest customer being JAMRS, a military recruitment program run by the U.S. Department of Defense.

In addition, the College Board is known for actively lobbying legislators and government officials. One more nugget: ACT and SAT are considered part of nonprofit companies, but test-takers are not allowed to write-off the money they must pay to take the monopolized tests because it is considered “transactional.” You can’t make this stuff up.

If we don’t start questioning why there are so many conflicts of interest in public education, one of the last democratic institutions in our country, I believe we will all soon wake up living in a completely corporate-run dystopia.

Compensation and motivation

Educational reform is the gold rush of the 21st century. Case in point: the education sector in business now controls 9 percent of our gross national product.

Question: Educational reform is creating an elite set of newly minted millionaires and billionaires, but is it working for our kids?

Question: Is there a connection between Pearson, the creator of controversial teacher evaluation models used in non-union states, and the anti-union rhetoric so popular in certain groups across the country?

The president of the College Board has seen his compensation package triple since 1999, while teachers across the country have seen up to double-digit dives and unlivable wage stagnation in their salaries over the same time period.

Meanwhile, ACT has a board of members who are paid $40,000 per year to attend four meetings, and ACT pays their executives more than almost all other nonprofits in the country.

College Board’s CEO makes a cool $1.3 million per year, and the top 40 executives are pulling in between $200,000-$300,000 per year.

TFA [Teach For America, or Teach For A-minute?]
From time to time I get flak about why I’m not a fan of Teach for America. Yes, there are a few good teachers who decide to stay after the mandatory two-year contract and decide to make teaching their career, but by and large, all TFA does, in my opinion, is to steal teaching jobs from veteran teachers and to perpetuate high teacher turnover rates in our urban schools. One might say it is fast, cheap, and out of control.

Don’t believe me? Ask the Chicago and Seattle teachers who lost their jobs and were replaced with a bunch of TFAs who had only five weeks of summer training. In 2015 Chicago schools were taken over by the state and, as a result, public schools were closed, teachers were fired, yet the city’s TFA contract was expanded by $600,000. Ask real Providence teachers who are blocked from jobs because TFA is cheaper to hire, easier to control, and comes with $5,000 in kickbacks, paid for each new hire.

Conflict of interest?
Some of TFA’s biggest funders include: the Walton Foundation, JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, and Bank of America. If fist-loads of money were not to be made, then why are these global corporations involved? Why is the Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos a champion for TFA? It seems to fit in perfectly with her model of diverting $20 billion from public education and giving it to charter schools.

Has TFA, seen as a gateway to cushy private-sector careers and prestigious graduate school programs, become complicit in the destruction of public education by actively seeking to give our most at-risk students the least qualified and most unprepared teachers? If TFA teachers are so great, why is it that so few upper-income students are being taught by them? Why is it OK to use our low-income students as guinea pigs?

Achievement First charter schools

What about the anti-union, federally funded charter school, Achievement First [AF], and their inexperience teachers, many of whom are recruited from Teach for America [TFA]? Full disclosure: AF is the same charter that Mayor Elorza chairs and from which Commissioner Infante-Green gleaned her "extensive" two years of classroom teaching experience.

By this point, you may be starting to ask the question why, when a new education commissioner with the teaching credentials of two years working at AF rolls into town, apparently leaves her family back in New York, rents an apartment, that one of the first things to roll off her tongue is: “I’m willing to break the Providence Teachers’ collective bargaining agreement.”

Most charter schools, in particular AF, do not have work contracts for teachers, nor do they require that their teachers be certified. That means they can fire any teacher at any time with no reason.

Achievement First is marketed as a progressive charter school whose main interest is educational justice. Many believe this. Why not? Sounds good. In reality Achievement First is a conservative institution with anti-progressive ideology. Theirs is a data-driven pedagogy based on teaching-to-the-test, union busting, forced exploitation of teachers’ labor, questionable discipline policies, and affiliations with the world’s most deep-pocketed corporate education reformers.

This is one reason that most AF schools are filled with young TFAers: fresh college grads who are less likely to question authority or the methods. If one only has a two-year commitment to a job, what’s the point in fighting for what is right? TFA bans its “teachers” from participating in any kind of union or political activities.

How is the union part of the problem in education? It’s not, in my opinion. Unions do not hire or fire teachers; only school administration can do that. If a poorly performing teacher is not let go, it is because their administrative evaluations tell another story.

I have seen highly unqualified teachers get the highest level of evaluation possible. This distinction is given by the administration. So why are the unions under attack? We should really be looking at the evaluation system put in place by RIDE.

Recently, AF was sued for not providing federally mandated services to special education students and practicing unsound punishment practices for students whose behavior challenges stem from their disabilities. In 2016 AF Amistad students in New Haven, Conn., held a walkout to demand racial diversity and fairer discipline practices.

Now embracing a new model, AF is welcoming the Summit Learning online educational platform developed by entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. Providence students and families already know how wonderfully Summit has not worked in our schools. Why are we still paying them money?

Chiefs for Change: A pro-charter business agenda
Now, let’s take a look at former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his educational reform group, Chiefs for Change. During his unsuccessful run for president back in 2016, he had the backing of all the major educational reform players who were salivating to cash in on “rescuing” our most at-risk learners. Chiefs for Change is a spin-off of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, who, by the way, lobbied to link high-stakes tests and teacher evaluations, and also gifted boatloads of money for charter expansion.

But Infante-Green is not the first Chief for Change that Providence has hosted. Remember former education commissioner Deborah Gist and state educational official Andrea Castañeda? They too were “chiefs.” Historically, those who come with the distinction of “chief” on their resume have a higher-than-average turnover rates in the positions they fill.

Recently, another member of the chiefs, who is located in San Antonio, Texas, and who heads their charter schools, had the following to say about the new Rhode Island commissioner: “Students and families in Rhode Island will benefit from Angélica’s extensive leadership experience and her dedication to strengthening all public schools.”

But wait. Chiefs for Change is the brainchild of Jeb Bush, with Betsy DeVos working by his side to help co-create its agenda to advance charter schools. How did DeVos get to be the Secretary of Education? Apparently, Bush and the Chiefs for Change had recommended her to Vice President Mike Pence.

Questions about Providence’s curriculum
At Hope High School, more than 30 percent of students are English language learners. Another 30 percent are receiving special education services. By not offering these demographics comprehensible and appropriate materials for their level of development, we are setting up another generation, and over half of our students, for failure.

Because of this I began to question the dogmatic insistence that we use the Pearson/College Board Springboard curriculum to teach English language learners and other students who are not yet learning at grade level. Springboard is an advanced placement [AP] prep program of studies designed for accelerated classes. It is not designed for struggling students, and especially not those acquiring a new language. It is the equivalent of using Beowulf to teach kindergarten students how to read. Using Springboard for ELs goes against every known praxis and pedagogy involved in teaching English language learners.

So why are we using it? I was told that we are simply complying with the U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit against Providence; a lawsuit filed for not giving ELs equal access to grade-level materials.

So, is this the answer to equity in education? Give beginning readers a curriculum designed for AP students? Welcome to the twilight zone. Once again, I ask: what happened to the $5 million allocated last year for EL education? Seriously, where is it? Why are we not using it to purchase the appropriate curriculum for our students?


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