Sunday, January 27, 2013

Pennsylvania Embracing Failure

Albert Einstein is perhaps our most famous
theorist. Turns 
out, the evidence has proven
him right. Win.
Lately, I have begun to espouse a new philosophy which is distinctly non-philosophical -- "show me that it works."

Both liberalism and conservatism are replete with theories about the way we should live and run our governments and our societies.

Some theories -- trickle-down economics for example -- have lived long beyond the time they should have been abandoned for the simple reason that have failed to produce the results they promised.

(For my entire adult life, I've been waiting for tax cuts for millionaires to ensure me a comfortable middle class lifestyle. Next.)

Failure of this theory is no joke.
Perhaps nowhere is theory more prevalent these days than in the field of education.

And so, although dubious, I was willing to give school choice a chance under the rubric that if it works, let's go with it.

After all, as someone who is the product of public schools, has a child in public schools and reports on traditional public schools on a daily basis, it was hard to argue that public schools don't have their problems.

The answer to those problems, we were told, was a new beginning; charter schools; cyber-charter schools; vouchers; starting from scratch.

Although I've always believed its better to fix the car than to buy a whole new car, I acknowledge that sometimes the car can't be fixed, or that fixing it would cost more than the value of the car itself.

So OK school choice, show me this works.


As traditional public education advocates have been shouting from the roof tops for the past week or so, newly re-calculated test results that actually compare apples to apples between charter, cyber-charter and traditional public schools show that fewer than 30 percent of charter schools meet national benchmarks.

By way of comparison, at least 50 percent of traditional public schools run by districts met the benchmarks.

Don't get me wrong, I'm no advocate for standardized tests being the only barometer of school effectiveness. They should be a part of a larger assessment.

But its the school choice people who have shoved those test scores in our face as evidence that traditional schools are failing and who used the skewed results as evidence of their success.


So what's good for the goose is good for the charter school I say.

Remember, the state slapped Pottstown High School with the dubious honor of being a "failing school" for missing one math benchmark and otherwise having grades much better than most charters and ALL cyber-charters.

The 'level playing field' Pennsylvania envisioned for

comparing traditional public schools and charter schools.
Surely, in the interest of "the level playing field" we all claim to want, that label will now be carefully applied to all 12 of Pennsylvania's cyber-charter schools, none of which made the "Adequate Yearly Progress" required under the federal No Child Left Behind Law.

Surely, in the interest of providing parents with as much information as possible to make informed choices, that label will now be slapped on the 61 percent of the 80 brick-and-mortar charter schools that did not make AYP.

Surely you're joking.

This is Pennsylvania people.

Consider that the reason those scores are new, is that until the feds stepped in and said no, Pennsylvania had one way of calculating scores for charter schools and a whole different (much harsher) way of calculating them for traditional public schools.

In other words, as I wrote about in August, there was a double standard.

Shocking I know.

"How could this happen?" You ask.

It's Pennsylvania people.

The better question to ask is how could it not happen?

Charles Zogby talks about Pennsylvania's pension crisis
during a meeting with Digital First Media journalists on Jan. 10.
Well, however it happened in the Byzantine halls of Harrisburg, I feel confident in the belief that just because former Secretary of Education Charles Zogby was subsequently a highly paid executive with a for-profit company with ties to the largest of Pennsylvania's cyber charter schools in no way ensured that a way would be found to make those companies look good and attract more investment.

Because that would be wrong.

By way of a little history, Zobgy served as education secretary under Republican governors Ridge and Schweiker from 2001 to 2003, and as the Director of Governor Ridge's Policy Office from 1995 to 2001.

Before returning to government service as Tom Corbett's budget secretary, a happy coincidence if ever there was one, Zogby, served as the Senior Vice President of Education and Policy for K12 Inc.

That for-profit company is an online school curriculum developer and provider with ties to Pennsylvania Virtual Academy and Agora, two of Pennsylvania's largest cyber charters.

This makes K12 seem like a perfectly nice company.
In July, K12 Inc. offices were raided by federal agents and the firm is also under investigation on Wall Street for lying to investors and in Florida for using non-certified teachers.

Surely, given the lobbying, the money, the poor performance, one would think it's time for some detailed examination of this school choice experiment.

Surely, given that not a single cyber-charter school demonstrated adequate effectiveness in educating our students to a state-wide standard, we would have a halt on any new cyber-charter school applications until we could figure out how to do better.

Surely, I've mentioned this is Pennsylvania right?
More money, worse results?

Let's have more of that.

Well in Pennsylvania, when there's doubt about the effectiveness of an entity using public money to do a sub-standard job, we respond by saying: "let's have us some more of that."

Yup, in a move that strains credulity, Pennsylvania is now considering approval of eight new cyber charter schools.

That's a 50 percent increase in the investment of public money in a model now shown to be failing.

Not satisfied with that depressing statistic, see if you can guess who would be contracted to run one of these eight new cyber charter schools -- you guessed it, K12 Inc.

That's how we roll in the Keystone state.

This year, Pennsylvania taxpayers will spend about $400 million so that roughly 35,000 students can be taught through cyber charters instead of traditional public schools.

By 2017, we the taxpayers would be spending an additional $108.3 million to educate another 9,800 students in cyber schools if these new proposed cyber-charters are approved.

Talk about throwing good money after bad. 

Rhonda Brownstein
In their review of the Philadelphia School District's operations, the Boston Consulting Group described the quality of Pennsylvania's cybers as "notoriously low."
The consultants recommended that the district start its own online program to draw students back.
And Rhonda Brownstein of the Education Law Center wants a freeze on all new cyber charters.
"With all of the dismal academic performance, we think that the Pennsylvania Department of Education should slow down, take a look at what the problem is, and not go on to approve additional [cybers]," she said.
But, according to Newsworks, the Pennsylvania Department of Education is doing the exact opposite.

Carolyn Dumaresq, PA's deputy secretary of
education sees "value" in a schools model that
fails to meet standards 100% of the time.
After all, it is the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

It's not like its some non-partisan public entity dedicated to giving the Commonwealth's children the very best education for the lowest price.

So, Carolyn Dumaresq, Pennsylvania's deputy secretary of education, showed up at the hearings "touting the value of online options," according to the Newsworks report. 

Perhaps she went to a cyber-charter school herself. I'm having trouble understanding how more money and poorer results defines the word "value."

"The beauty of the cyber charter is that any child, anywhere in Pennsylvania can participate," said Dumaresq. "I think they serve a unique role in providing additional opportunities for students."

Which of course, brings us back to theories versus actual evidence in the real world; where the "opportunity" to participate in a failing enterprise from anywhere in the state, is a value greater than a public school where your chances of academic success are greater.

A decision on the new charters is expected tomorrow. Anyone want to bet they all get approved?

Corbett listens to a question from Phil Heron, right, the

editor of the Delaware County Daily Times during a Jan. 10

meeting with editorial staff from Digital First Media.
When I joined a group of Digital First Media editors and reporters to meet with Gov. Corbett so he could highlight the crisis of pensions in Pennsylvania (see today's Mercury for an in depth-analysis of that problem) I asked him about the results for school choice.

As I wrote in a Jan. 13 post, Corbett's affection for the theory allows him to by-pass the facts.

I started by asking him about the "voucher lite" program, that uses a business tax break to divert what would have been tax receipts that could have funded public schools (you'll remember them as the ones that are doing better than charter schools). Instead, the money goes to foundations that offer scholarships to private schools.

According to an analysis I did in August, by an overwhelming margin, the program favors schools with a religious affiliation.

So I asked Gov. Corbett if using the state to facilitate religious education bothered him.

"Are you asking me if I'm against school choice? No, I'm not against school choice. Competition is always good," Corbett replied, completely ignoring the question I had actually asked him.

When I pointed out, as we've shown here, that test scores at charter schools, cyber and otherwise, are in general worse than those in traditional public schools, he was untroubled.

Smiling, he said these experiments in choice are "just getting started" and will have to "do better."

Faith in the theory that "competition is always good" trumped evidence that this is not always the case.

I would have hoped that a former prosecutor would be more moved by evidence.

But that's just a theory.

After all, this is Pennsylvania.


  1. "So far, I have documented 310 schools, in nine states and the District of Columbia that are teaching creationism, and receiving tens of millions of dollars in public money through school voucher programs." ---

  2. The problem seems obvious. You simply expect too much. You would find life so much more enjoyable if you simply lowered your standards. You probably also would get elected here ... in Pennsylvania.

  3. Only in Pennsylvania do you have this ridiculous education funding scenario. To top this mess, we now have a voucher system that is actually moving tax dollars AWAY from Pottstown School District (which is grossly underfunded) and go TO a private school who boasts a $115 million dollar endowment fund. The Governor and State legislature have COMPLETELY given up on the children and residents of Pottstown. Absolute, utter insanity. These people should be charged with fraud.

  4. I am thinking about buying a digital notebook for school to take notes and such. Not a real expensive one just one that's about $80-90 and don't say that I cant find one because I already have. I'm in AOIT so what do you think?

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