Field Tripping: Economists Take Education Faculty to Visit Charter “Success”

In this guest post, Dr. Donna Wake, Associate Dean of Education at the University of Central Arkansas, relates an experiences taking a trip to visit a charter school with two economics faculty members. Donna has written other posts for this blog, including one about cursive writing (see here), and another about the educational mistreatment of Emma, (see here). Readers are encouraged to contact Dr. Wake with responses to this piece and/or engage in the comment section below.  

In the fall term, two economics faculty from my university’s College of Business contacted me about a trip they were taking to visit a charter school in the Arkansas Delta. The first email came on a Tuesday afternoon. Two economists, one who positioned himself as an educational policy analyst, were planning this trip and wondered if faculty from the College of Education might be interested in joining them. On Friday. In 3 days.

Despite the inconvenience of shuffling my week’s schedule for an impromptu trip to a school 3 hours away, I appreciated that they thought to include us, albeit at the last minute. With that in mind, and given my own curiosity about this specific charter school, I convinced a colleague to join me and made arrangements to go on the trip.

Friday morning arrived. After a three hour drive into the Arkansas Delta, we spent the morning touring the school’s various facilities, visiting classes, and talking with students and faculty and administrators. Collectively, my education associate and I asked the school personnel hundreds of questions in our three hours at the school. We asked about teacher turnover, free and reduced lunch rates, bus routes, and percentage of traditional versus non-traditionally certified teachers. We asked about parental involvement, class demographics, administrator preparation, use of Common Core, and school response to the recent changes in test requirements. We asked about the newly implemented teacher evaluation system, professional development initiatives, and state funding models. The economists followed us, listened, and took notes.

At times, we worried that we were “taking over” the economists’ trip. But when we individually asked the economists if we should allow them more time for their questions, they told us keep driving the conversations. Our questions helped them to think about this school.

In contrast to our many questions, the economists asked multiple school personnel only one question, repeatedly – “to what do you attribute your success?” When pressed to define “success”, the economists cited recent standardized test results, particularly when compared to local districts.



Economist #1 (E#1), the educational policy expert, clearly assumed the school’s impact was positive, and he assumed this positive impact was correlated with standardized test scores. Unfortunately, I was not able to uncover any depth of research behind his assumptions. In fact, both E#1 and E#2 were openly surprised when I asked about how the school’s presence might be harming the local contexts by de-stabilizing the local school structures.

I began to feel as if our presence had been arranged simply because the economists didn’t know what questions they should be asking. This suspicion was confirmed the following Monday when E#1 emailed me to ask what was the difference between a traditional and non-traditionally trained teacher. I carefully typed my response and connected him to the department of education website as a resource.

I heard nothing from the economists for several months and had almost managed to forget the whole exchange. Then in January I received an email asking me to recommend a film for an economics student group as they discussed “School Choice Week.” I cautiously complied by recommending “Waiting for Superman.” I use “Waiting for Superman” in my own classes to talk about the complexities of public education and the positive and negative impact of school choice on districts, families, and students.

I also suggested that perhaps the students stage a panel discussion after the film viewing to include education faculty. I felt that the students might need guidance in discussing the history of school choice as well as both the pros and cons of school choice. I even volunteered my own time for this event.

I soon learned that my panel idea had been rejected by the student group. That’s right… rejected by the student group. But, they wondered if I might let education majors know of their film screening by sharing the following information:

This Thursday: Film Screening & Dinner Discussion of Waiting for Superman

Want to improve kids’ education? Come learn about realistic changes that make huge differences in the lives of children.

To celebrate National School Choice week (January 24th -30th), the Young Americans for Liberty are hosting a screening of the documentary Waiting for Superman. Great conversation, pizza, and beverages will be provided.

Perturbed does not begin to describe my emotional response. I immediately responded that I would not be sharing the announcement. I also asked that the world “celebrate” be replaced by the word “discuss.” In fact, I pointed out that using the word “celebrate” was based on the assumption that school choice is something to celebrate and represented a bias in programming that should really be a part of the larger conversation happening around this topic.

Here is my take away from this sequence of events… It is wonderful that so many people care about kids and education. It is fantastic that people outside the field of education want to help and think they can help support teachers and kids in schools. However… we in the education profession all need to be much more blunt about our communication with people outside of our field. To make real differences in the lives of teachers, students and schools requires a deep understanding of context and requires a great deal of time working within school structures and thinking about issues related to educational practices and policies. I wish to refute the idea that “anyone can teach.” I want to support the idea that teaching is a profession with long standing traditions and discourses. While the field certainly has its issues, it is impractical and troubling to think that those from outside the system can enter and “fix” the system with no knowledge of the field.

While people enter into these situations with the best of intentions, this intrusion into the field was ineffective and potentially harmful in that it promulgated the narrative that school choice is a “solution” to all of the complexities and challenges facing modern educational contexts. Put simply, if you want to play in my sandbox, then spend some time studying the field (e.g., perhaps take coursework and earn a degree or licensure) and spend some time yourself as a teacher in local schools. Once you do that, then engage with me in a conversation. Until then, I will not be celebrating choice – particularly when we do not know the impact those choices have on teachers, kids, and schools in local contexts, where it matters most.

Read this Post

No, not this post, but THIS post.

Our friend Ann Cronin who blogs for Real Learning CT has done a great Untitledjob of breaking down the Democratic candidates for President in relation to their records on progressive education.

Here’s the link again.

Read it.



Education “Research” So Bad it Deserves an Award

The National Education Policy Center NEPC has released it’s 2015 award for the worst Educational “Research” – otherwise known as the “Bunkum Award”.   We look forward to this award every year because they do a fairly comprehensive job of debunking biased research that privileges a political purpose rather than the generation of new knowledge.

According to NEPC:

This year’s winner is the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, for Separating Fact from Fiction: What You Need to Know about Charter Schools. The National Alliance (NAPCS) describes itself as “the leading national nonprofit organization committed to advancing the charter school movement.” Separating Fact from Fiction is a fetching, sleek publication adorned with 15 charming photos of smiling children keeping watch over 21 easy-to-digest, alleged “myths” followed by responses that the report generously describes as “facts.” Yet Separating Fact from Fiction might more honestly be titled:

Playing 21 with a Stacked Deck
Blackjacked! 21 Attempts to Club Sound Policy.



Charter school “research” has become very popular lately as private groups seek to cash in on public money in order to create schools that are “superior” to public options.  You can see NEPC’s YouTube Presentation of the Award below and be sure to check out the full story HERE.

Guest Post: Shaving Cream Lattes and Educational “Innovation”

The Progressive Educator is happy to welcome our University of Arkansas colleague (all thoughts posted here are his or ours or those of someone, anyone else other than our employer) Dr. Derrick Mears to the blogosphere and feature a post he wrote with this audience in mind. Before you run to the closest wastebasket at the thought of shaving cream lattes, know that the ideas–buying shaving cream, rejecting free lattes, and educational “innovation”–are separate. Feel free and encouraged to contact Derrick at the link below. ~czg

By Derrick Mears

Recently I attended an international conference attempting to recruit students to graduate programs at my university. I witnessed a strange new phenomenon that made me ponder just exactly where our American education system is headed. This observation struck me because it was in close proximity to another I made while shopping for groceries just the week before.

While shopping for shaving cream I wandered down the aisle and overheard conversations between store executives standing in the isle (making it difficult to get to the shaving cream) discussing how, through shelf placement and packaging, they could convince the customer to spend a greater amount of money for the same product. The discussion provided an overview on how this tactic would be not only convince the consumer to spend more money but also convince them to purchase a lower quality product. This made me think, how much of my shopping behavior is being manipulated by this type of marketing? How much of my behavior as a consumer overall was the result of these gimmicks? As an educator who works in curriculum and educational technology I also began to wonder whether this same type of marketing strategy was used to educate our children in public schools and to provide resources for teachers?

My answer came in the form of frothy lattes at the international conference I mentioned in the opening paragraph. I walked into the exhibit hall and caught the aroma of fresh brewed coffee and steamed milk and wondered, what was that wonderful smell? Unfortunately, the answer was not what I expected. One of the large textbook manufacturers had set up their own “Free Latte Station” complete with a barista that would customize your order. Though I love coffee it seemed odd that giving away coffee was being used to sell textbooks. Being curious and remembering my experience buying shaving cream, I begin to browse the products being offered. What I discovered was the “latte gimmick” was just one piece of the puzzle. There were multiple gimmicks and slogans being used in an attempt to sell not only textbooks but web-based resources as well.


As I declined my free latte (though it was tempting) I was reminded of a recent TED talk by Richard Culatta on “Reimagining Learning.” In the introductory portion of this video he spoke about how technology integration in school systems in many cases is merely taking a traditional medium of information delivery (like the textbook) and “digitizing it.” For example, take the classroom lecture, video-record it, and put it on line, then call it an “innovative new method of content integration.” This video also made me realize that what was being sold under the context of “free lattes” had strong parallels to what I observed when purchasing shaving cream.

Many of the companies at this particular conference were promoting digital content that was “aligned to common core state standards” or content that “tracked student progress” but were for the most part merely textbooks that had been digitized with used self-grading multiple choice quizzes to check for knowledge and comprehension. Many of these virtual textbooks would even highlight where the content was discussed in the text related to what was missed on the test so the student could go back and re-read the “important” parts. But even more concerning was the marketing slogan that these materials promoted “higher order thinking skills”.

Anyone in the educational field has heard (hopefully) of Bloom’s Taxonomy. A classification system for educational activities developed in the 1950’s and recently re-tooled that focuses upon helping educators design projects, questions and interventions. Activities which can be categorized into the upper tiers of Bloom’s are considered activities that promote what is referred to as “higher order thinking”. These types of activities require students to engage in in-depth analysis and/or evaluation of content or create something that didn’t previously exist. As I searched the virtual shelves (trying to ignore the smells of warm chocolate and caramel syrup being added to the roasted coffee beans behind me) I was finding it hard to see evidence of how reading a series of web-based textual content segments followed by electronic multiple choice tests was facilitating this type of learning. However, these products were flying off the shelves as districts were looking to meet 21st Century Learning guidelines for technology integration (which seemed like another promotional buzz slogan being used quite often by vendors).

The issues related to what I observed through my attempt to purchase shaving cream and watch the barista hired by the textbook company serve up lattes, continued to escalate until I realized what was really happening. So to end this meandering of thought, I want to share with you a hypothetical scenario to consider when evaluating and choosing educational interventions to facilitate student learning. Hopefully, it will also put into perspective what some corporations are doing to our educational system in the name of “integrating instructional technology into education.”

Imagine an individual with no background in computer programming walks into the MicroApplesoft Corporation. Upon arriving, the individual brings free donuts to all of the programmers who are busy writing the code for the newest operating system and tells them about the great computer system they would like to sell them that would revolutionize how they write code, ensure that code was aligned to appropriate practice in code writing, and revolutionize how individuals use the personal computer. The individual then gives them free coffee and shows them a cool video with pictures of people looking at the computer, smiling and nodding their heads like they easily understand what is on the screen. The individual (who I remind you knows nothing about writing code) through the convincing marketing tactics of free donuts and coffee then convinces the MicroApplesoft Corporation to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into the computer system. The individual then leaves and here is what arrives at MicroApplesoft Corporation’s office.




This is what many of the efforts at “revolutionizing” education through the use of technology are doing, merely “digitizing” content. Our children deserve better. They deserve opportunities to create projects using technology, engage in using and developing the new technologies, and guide the interventions and actual innovations of the future. So, the next time you buy shaving cream, instructional technology, or textbooks, keep the barista in mind and ask whether the shelf placement or gimmicky trick is really “revolutionizing” anything, or whether “digitizing” a textbook is really innovation.

Which States Value Public Education? A New Report from NPE Says “Pretty Much None of Them”

The Network for Public Education, an Organization with values and beliefs that align with us here at The Progressive Educator, released a report yesterday that evaluated our 50 states and D.C. according to the value each state places on public education.  In writing the executive summary, Diane Ravitch describes the purpose of the report:

Our report, Valuing Public Education: A 50 State Report Card, evaluates how well each of the fifty states and the District of Columbia support their public schools, based on objective and measurable factors aligned with our values. We promote specific policies that will help make our public schools vibrant and strong—a well-trained, professional teaching force, adequate and equitable funding wisely spent, and policies that give all students a better opportunity for success.

The report then goes on to evaluate each state based on the following criteria:

  1. No High Stakes Testing
  2. Professionalization of Teaching
  3. Resistance to Privatization
  4. School Finance
  5. Use of Taxpayer Resources

Readers of this blog won’t be surprised to find that applying these five criteria to the current status quo of “test-punish-close-privatize-and-profit” results in 8 states with failing grades and no state with a grade higher than a “C”.

We find this report to be interesting because it is an example of how a common education reform strategy can be turned on its head.  In order to perpetuate the myth of public school failure, many organizations that promote education reform produce report cards for states based on criteria with narrow visions of accountability or appropriate disciplinary content.  Not surprisingly, many or most state fail these evaluations.  This makes headlines and results in a renewed rush to find solutions (many of which cost prodigious amounts of money) for the “problems” our schools face.

With the NPE report, you see a different take.  If states were to align their values towards public education with the NPE criteria, they would not only see far less demand for external solutions (i.e. testing regimens, expensive gifts to Teach for America, tax payer supported private charter schools), but more importantly, they would actually align themselves with decades of research that shows the “test-punish-close-privatize-and-profit” status quo simply doesn’t work.

We encourage you to check out the entire report here.

Education Voters Must Consider Number 27 at the Primaries


It’s fairly simple: 15 plus 12, 10 plus 17, 9 times 3. The number 27 is divisible by 3 and 9, and 27 less than 54.

It’s inexcusably horrific: the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the world has the 27th ranked childhood poverty rate.

27th is the way we are treating our most vulnerable, helpless, and defenseless population–our children.

We gave a lecture at Keene State College in New Hampshire on Friday detailing and dispelling myths surrounding education and the media’s constant Dystopian narrative about how bad our schools are, how lame teachers are, and how gooey and wonderful charter schools and vouchers would taste on the American palette of free enterprise and choice.

Rubio, Cruz, and Trump want to close the Department of Education and end Common Core. Sanders and Clinton and Rubio want to expand access to college. All five support school choice in some form or another. Only the democrats list education as issues on their campaign site. Not surprisingly, education is mostly missing from the debates during this primary season but the American people deserve to know how our country can fix education.

We ask that education voters forget about all of the issues candidates are or are not discussing designed to help improve education, myth or reality. All of the educational reform or innovation in the world will not overcome the damning effects of childhood poverty, will not change the 27.

What will or won’t allegedly fix education is irrelevant because none of it will change our rankings on achievement tests (that are nearly perfectly correlated with family income, by the way) or help the children of our country that desperately need us to act boldly on their behalf. What will address poverty is the only question we educators should ask during this election.

Forget charters, Teach for America, universal pre-K, Finland, and Common Core. Forget ESSA, ACT, accountability, and private schools. Not a single thing matters if we don’t address number 27 first. All of this is moot if we address the real issue.

We believe that anyone telling you otherwise is either ignorant, misled, or purposefully obfuscating the reality of education for their own personal, political, and/or financial gain. There’s plenty of static out there about what will help our “failing” education system. It isn’t failing, our economics are.

No change in the education equation matters other than addressing the egregious wealth inequality our country faces. Educational achievement and family income levels line up like Kindergartners heading for the bathroom.

27th in childhood poverty.

We agree that Hillary Clinton might be a terrific president and she’s the choice of many due to her longstanding education work, her experience as a politician, and the support she enjoys of both major teachers unions. We are honored to call her former home of Fayetteville, Arkansas our home. Hillary’s great.

Think 27.

Attachment-1There’s only one candidate that education voters–those Americans concerned about children or our future–should support in the upcoming primaries tonight, tomorrow, and in the coming months: Bernie Sanders. Bernie’s been advocating for wealth equality since before it was cool and until our country faces the hard truth of 27, the crippling effects on our children of what it means to grow up without enough food or safety or supervision or any of the unquantifiable effects of poverty, an issue we believe only he is uniquely qualified to address, lets place a moratorium on ideas how to fix or “reform” an education system that, by the way, when one controls for family wealth, is the best in the world.

In our view, nothing else matters to education, to our country’s future, or to this time in world history more than the number 27. Think of that number and think Bernie Sanders.

Assigning Letter Grades to Schools? The Danger of a Single Performance Indicator

We recently published a commentary in Teachers College Record that revisits aGrades topic we took up in 2014 – the decision by the Arkansas legislature to require the “grading” of schools.   You can read the first portion of the commentary below and finish it up on the Teachers College Record website.  Free access is available for a limited time.

Assigning Letter Grades to Schools?  The Danger of a Single Performance Indicator

Sixteen states require their Departments of Education to assign a single performance indicator such as a “letter grade” to schools within those states. We take a look at the relationship between school grades and poverty in one of these states. Our analysis indicates that there is a moderate negative correlation between poverty and school performance indicators. We discuss the implications for communities and structural poverty and make a plea to reconsider the manner in which single performance indicators are determined. 

In 2013, the Arkansas legislature passed two pieces of legislation requiring the state Department of Education to assign a single indicator of performance to schools in the form of an A through F letter grade. This decision was met with consternation by those who argued that the system represented an unfair oversimplification of the process of schooling. Christian Z. Goering, Associate Professor of English Education at the University of Arkansas wrote,

“Grading schools based on achievement (or growth) will actually be grading them on their socioeconomic status…I challenge all members of the Arkansas legislature to plop down in their cars and drive around to all of the different towns and neighborhoods in their districts, paying close attention to the size of the houses. All they have to do is count the number of garage doors they see on the houses in a particular district and then return to their offices to rank schools accordingly.

  • 0 garage doors/carport – D or F school
  • 1 garage door – D school
  • 2 garage doors – D, C, or B school
  • 3 or more garage doors B or A school.” (Goering, 2015, n.p.)

We don’t have the time or the gas money to take up this challenge, but we were curious to see if there was indeed a relationship between poverty and the letter grades assigned to Arkansas schools. Researchers have found a nearly perfect correlation between parental income and scores on the SAT (0.98) & ACT (0.99) standardized tests (Orlich & Giffords, 2005). Correlations with ethnicity (0.96) were also nearly perfect. These findings do not imply causation, though other researchers have been able to predict district-level state test scores in Language Arts and Mathematics for 60 percent of school districts in New Jersey based only on percentage of single parent households, percentage of residents with at least a Bachelor’s degree, and percentage of economically disadvantaged children (Turnamian & Tienken, 2012). We reasoned that finding a relationship between Arkansas school grades and poverty was a likely proposition.

Read the remainder of the commentary HERE.

The Progressive Educator Goes On the Road to NH

We are very excited to be traveling to New Hampshire this Friday to give a presentation entitled Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics: How Americans Have Been Tricked into Perpetuating the Myth of Public School Failure
UntitledUntitledSo, you know, if you’re in the neighborhood and all, come on by.


Welcome to The Progressive Educator

EduSanity is no more.

Well, there’s more. But it’s different.

When Chris and I launched EduSanity in 2012 we were pretty angry about the course that public education was taking in the United States. In the three years since our launch we have written lots of posts that take on the forces of privatization that seek to profit off the education of our children.

We won’t be quitting that fight.

But things have changed somewhat. Where we once wanted to simply restore sanity to the discourse of public education in the United States, we now have broader goals. Rather than seeing our blog and related endeavors as a reaction to bad ideas, policies and sometimes people, we want to take our work in a more positive direction.

That doesn’t mean we won’t still fire up the righteous indignation when it is warranted.

As avowed progressive educators, we decided that renaming this site “The Progressive Educator” would be a proper reflection of what we want to do.

It’s important to start off on that path by clarifying what “progressive” means in this context. While we tend to think of “progressive” in political terms – thereby associating the word with others like “liberal” or “democrat” – that’s not how we are using it here.

Instead, we like to think of progressive education in the same fashion as the father of progressive education, John John-Dewey-Laboratory-School-1859-1952Dewey, did over a hundred years ago. I won’t bog down this post with citations or quotes, but rather with a simple distillation of the theory in terms the average reader can appreciate.

Dewey knew that in order for education to maximize its value to the human experience, it needed to be in a state of constant change – or more specifically – progress. Progressive educators are those who recognize that education is experience, that our educational experiences must change as our life experiences change, and that educational experiences are only truly educative if they lead to further life and educational experiences.

That’s a very generalized take on a very complex and granular philosophy.  But blogs aren’t necessarily meant to be complex and granular.  It’s enough to know that progressive educators connect meaningful educational experience to students’ lives in a manner that will prepare and encourage them to seek out more experiences. That’s who we are and that’s what we are in the classroom.

This site is named “The Progressive Educator” because we envision it as a space for those who share our philosophical approach to educating students across disciplines and ages. In the future you will see posts related to this purpose as well as posts that look like classic EduSanity diatribes. Its not like we’re changing who we are.

To be clear, we don’t believe that the discourse on public education has had its sanity restored thereby freeing us to move on. But one can only feed off righteous indignation for so long before it becomes debilitating to the energy and soul of the educator. That’s one reason we want to use this space in a more positive way – to write about what we believe in rather than primarily dissecting the potentially harmful beliefs of others.

Our social media accounts are also changing to keep up. If you already follow us on Facebook or Twitter you will see “The Progressive Educator” show up on your Facebook timeline and @T_P_Educator in your Twitter feed. If you don’t follow us you can click on the icons in the left sidebar!

Thanks for the support,

Jason and Chris

Guest Post – PARCC Reports

When I received the following email yesterday morning, I temporarily had my waning faith in email restored. Justin Escher Alpert wasn’t a name I recognized and immediately I wondered, given the title of PARCC Reports, who had sold my email address. As I started reading the message, an excellent piece of satire about the educational failure known as the PARCC exam unfolded in front of me. I still don’t know Justin Escher Alpert but he authorized the reprint of this, and I find myself wanting to read more. Enjoy, Chris


Dear Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers:

Congratulations on the PARCC test reports finally coming out.  It will be great for the kids to come back from the holidays to work on where they fell short last spring.  Thanks for bringing it back up.  Without your efforts, it would be very hard to compare our children to those in Washington D.C. or New Orleans… that is… unless we had the means to actually visit and take in the Culture.

One point for your consideration, please:  That the reports were going to be IN COLOR was a major selling point of the PARCC Exam.  Take a look at the attached sample report.  The colors are dull and faded.  It is almost like we cheaped out on ink.  As long as we are reducing our children to two-dimensional depictions, couldn’t we use more vivid colors, if only to evoke the rich full spectrum of possibility that Life has to offer?


Thank you for your continued interest in the few PARCC states remaining.  Perhaps we might compare our lowest-performing schools and work together to fix the underlying socio-economic problems exposed by standardized testing.  The remnants of the PARCC structure would be a wonderful scaffolding to reverse the flow of information and effect innovation at the grass roots level.  Besides, just by sampling the lowest-performing schools, we could extrapolate the issues nation-wide and empower further responsible and accountable local Control.  You know, upon reflection, maybe we could cut back on the amount of testing and just do a statistical sampling.  Nobody ever needed a road map where one inch equals one inch.  You’d spend all of your time cartographing, lost in the details, and sort of miss out on the real-world beauty and adventure of the travel and interactions with People.  Just saying.

That’s all.  Well that, and your science is fundamentally flawed.  If you would like, I could put together a team to show you how to use data more effectively.  There is seemingly a conflict-of-interest bias that affects your results.  Maybe in the beginning of April you could submit your findings for peer review.  A continuing conversation.

Anyway, happy holidays to you and your whole PARCC team.  There is no reason why with critical thinking and rigor, we can’t raise the nature and quality of your work up to our standards of excellence in the New Year.

Very truly yours,

Justin Escher Alpert

Livingston, New Jersey