Last month, I attended two different events dedicated to the discussion of public education. They were separate and unrelated, but each event featured one of the two co-founders of a local group called Up for Ed.
Theresea Drew sat on a panel hosted by Voice of San Diego, and Shelli Kurth was one of three attendees hand selected to ask a question during the Michelle Rhee event, the welcoming remarks for which were given by the former leader of the supposedly defunct pro-charter group San Diegans 4 Great Schools. (One of my Twitter followers approached me before the event started, shook my hand and said ominously, “We are in the belly of the beast.” No doubt, I believe what she said was true.) At any rate, when Kurth took the microphone to speak, she identified herself only as a parent (I’d love to know where her children go to school) and not as a founder of Up for Ed, which happened to be a co-sponsor of the event.
I thought this was a curious omission. I mentioned this in my recap of the event, and went a few rounds on Twitter with Up for Ed. Interested to know why Kurth wouldn’t mention her affiliation at the time of her public question to Rhee, and curious about where Up for Ed stands on certain issues that are left unaddressed on it’s website, I emailed Kurth. I wrote:
Your website states as core values, “Great School and Great Teachers, Kids-First Decision Making and Parents as REAL and POWERFUL Stakeholders.” Yet nowhere on your site do you state which reforms you support in order to achieve these core values. You say your in favor of parent empowerment, yet nowhere in your mission statement do you say what that means to your organization. So, I‘m writing you now to try to understand where Up for Ed stands on various issues. I’m curious to know what Up for Ed’s position is on the following:
2. High stakes testing
3. Teacher assessment using HST
4. School Closings/Conversions of schools to privately run charters
5. Lifting the caps on public funding of charter schools
Also, is Up for Ed affiliated with the Los Angeles group Parent Revolution?
Finally, when Shelli spoke publicly at the Michelle Rhee event last night, she introduced herself as a parent, but did not include that she is a co-founders of Up for Ed, one of the sponsors of Rhee’s listening tour. Why this omission?
I received a response from Up for Ed’s PR person offering a chance to discuss these questions over coffee. Unable to do this until after the holidays, I reiterated that my questions were pretty straightforward, and that I didn’t think they necessitated a face-to-face meeting. Never mind that I’m a journalist; as a parent who might be looking to affiliate with some sort of education reform group, these questions are not unreasonable. Why would they hedge unless there was something to hide?
Long story getting longer, I did receive an email from Kurth filled with platitudes, talking points, and——one of my questions answered. “In regards to the Michelle Rhee event,” Kurth added as a post script, “It was requested that I identify myself simply as a parent.” That passive voice is so forgiving, isn’t it?
I’ve since emailed to ask who requested that Kurth identify herself “simply as a parent.” Was it the Rhee people? And if not the Rhee people, then who? Was it her people? And who are her people? So far——and not surprisingly——it’s tumbleweeds and crickets from Kurth. And I definitely don’t expect any more answers after I write this, which is okay with me since the evasiveness, combined with what Drew and Kurth are willing to say to other journalists, speaks very loudly indeed.
Please join me for a quick detour, won’t you?
The re-branded and newly named U-T San Diego published a piece yesterday about a tussle between parent groups and the teachers union. There are so many ways to dissect this particular piece of journalism, but the gist is that certain parent organizers—who don’t like unions other than “parent unions”—are unhappy with the way the teacher’s union is depicting the new parent trigger law in their member newsletter.
The union views the parent trigger law as another effort to privatize schools (which it is), and is making sure its members understand its implications. Bill Freeman, president of the San Diego Education Association went so far as to call the parent trigger a “fake democracy.” Which is just, you know, BULLS EYE.
The parent groups interviewed for the article see things another way, however, stating “[t]he parents want union leaders to retract the articles published in their newsletters and issue new communication to members that offer unbiased news about the law.” I suppose that unbiased news about the law and other education reporting should come from…the Doug Manchester owned U-T San Diego?
But enough detour. Can you take a guess at who the parents are in this story? That’s right: Shelli Kurth and Theresa Drew of Up for Ed. Working in conjunction with Parent Revolution (shocker), which answers one of my unanswered questions. And then, too, there was this very important bit that pretty much answers all of my other questions: “Up for Ed organizers received seed money from businessman and charter school advocate Rod Dammeyer, who worked with San Diegans 4 Great Schools and that group’s failed effort put a measure on the next ballot that would allow voters to expand the city school board with appointed members. ” (Bold face type is mine, typos are not.)
The dots are all there. They just need to be connected.
To be clear, I don’t have a problem with Up for Ed’s point of view, other than I think they’re wrong, and I’m going to speak out about it. What I do have a problem with is the lack of transparency that seems to define Up for Ed, San Diegans 4 Great Schools, Parent Revolution and the entire “reform” movement more interested in equivocation and trickery than anything else when it comes to realizing their end goals.
Parents: If you’re going to pick a side, it’s good to know who you’re dealing with.
“The bottom line is that standardized testing can continue only with the consent and cooperation of the educators who allow those tests to be distributed in their schools—and the parents who permit their children to take them. If we withhold that consent, if we refuse to cooperate, then the testing process grinds to a halt.”
—Alfie Kohn, parent, author and education expert
(photo from Peg With Pen)
Jan. 7 has been declared National Opt Out Day by the grassroots organization United Opt Out National, whose goal is to eliminate high-stakes testing (HST) in public education. With the unreachable goal of 100-percent student proficiency in math and reading by 2014, the bipartisan No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act and its component standardized testing will result—in fact is designed to result—in an unprecedented, manufactured event of 100-percent school failure. Education privatizers are salivating like hyenas.
Last night, I drove over to the Shiley Auditorium on the beautiful campus of USD to hear Michelle Rhee talk about education reform, or as it should more aptly be called when it comes to Rhee, “reform.” San Diego was the first of five stops she is making in California as part of what she called a listening tour, or as it should more aptly be called when it comes to Rhee, a “listening tour.” But I’ll get to that in a minute.
I had planned to tweet the event, despite the signs that said “no texting,” but then I couldn’t get a signal on my phone. The conspiracy theorist in me thinks there was a jammer involved. After all, this was a university campus and I have a smart phone. But my friend, Grant who sat with me, laughed at the notion. He claims to be cynical, but perhaps he’s not cynical enough.
The un-tweetable event was touted in our local paper as “a series of education forums with California mayors,” so it didn’t seem outrageous to expect a conversation between Rhee and San Diego’s newly-svelt and rather handsome Mayor Jerry Sanders. But following a short welcome by Scott Himmelstein of the slippery San Diegans 4 Great Schools—the “grassroots” organization that would like to see four private citizens appointed to our elected school board—Mayor Sanders only offered a brief introduction before disappearing. His dinner was probably getting cold, as the event began 45-minutes later than scheduled.
So: No conversation with San Diego’s mayor. Instead, Rhee shared the stage with three non-mayoral panelists: two young and well-liked teachers who have each repeatedly experienced the annual pink slip, and a parent named Sally Smith who was clearly waiting for Michelle Rhee to up and walk on water. Her fawning made me avert my eyes, but the teachers were compelling.
(It should not be overlooked that there was another mayor present. The mayor of Sacramento, Kevin Johnson, emceed the evening. But Aaryn, you may ask. Why was the mayor of Sacramento emceeing the Michelle Rhee “listening tour” in San Diego? Well that is an excellent question! Johnson is Michelle Rhee’s husband, a notable nepotistic fact given that Rhee and her organization—innocuously dubbed Students First—are elbowing their way into the California education morass. Aye, the rabbit hole is twisty. Johnson was a one-man cheerleader for his wife, the head Rheeleader if you will, interjecting an emphatic “awesome!” every time it was his turn to talk. He excitedly pointed to the audience as proof of how many people support his wife and her “reform” movement. Speaking of which, I did nothing more than RSVP for the event and was subsequently counted amongst their 900,000 supporters. Be cautious of numbers coming from Rhee.)
Aside from the delay at the beginning—which Johnson claimed was due to the large number of people trying to get in; it is difficult to fill a theater before curtain time, after all—the event was carefully orchestrated. Students of the teacher panelists were escorted to front-of-house reserved seats to the left and right of the stage. The front section was reserved for important grown-up revelers escorted in moments before the show started. Hmmm…could it be possible that the presentation started late because Rhee was in a meet-and-greet with powerful donors? No. No. It must have been the rest of us on-timers patiently waiting for the show to start.
When it did finally begin, the Marshall Middle School Chamber Choir plucked at heart strings like little angels when they sang a moving rendition of “God Is Watching Us” (you can hear it at the end of this post). They followed it with Jay-Z’s “New York,” and drove home the adorable factor when a little Asian boy with spiked hair sang the lead. It was contrived, for sure, but effective. I swallowed tears because a) the kids were so damned good and b) so damned lucky to have a music program. Unlike the kids at my daughter’s school where there isn’t even a locker room for them to change for PE class, let alone a middle school chamber choir. Unspoken message: It’s good to attend a school in Scripps Ranch.
After a short speech by Michelle Rhee and anecdotal stories from the women who joined her on stage, the listening part of the “listening tour” began. The AV folks brought microphones to three pre-selected audience members, because nothing says I’m-listening-to-what-you-all-have-to-say like choosing the voices you want to hear. Rhee knows she can’t be held to account if she doesn’t allow a real conversation.
Teacher Kathleen Gallagher said teachers and administrators in schools are at fault because they “don’t monitor the quality of instruction” in their schools. She said that “kids are bored out of their minds” and that teachers “need to be more accountable.” She didn’t mention the dreadful curriculum foisted upon teachers, designed to prepare children for testing, but her point was applauded. Shelli Kurth introduced herself as a parent of two kids and went on to say that “nobody wants to have the conversations that are uncomfortable.” I assume she wasn’t talking about the role of poverty in our education system. Another thing she wasn’t talking about during her staged moment at the mic, was that she is a co-founding member of Up for Ed, a local organization that sponsored the event. A little disclosure goes a long way. Finally, Christopher Yanov of Reality Changers spoke of the need for high expectations. His group is a non-profit but recently launched a for-profit “new social enterprise” called College Apps Academy. The association, to me, is curious. Also included were two similar audience questions written on note cards, selected by staff and read by Johnson. Generally speaking: What do we do now? Rhee’s answer: Join Student’s First. Awesome!
Of course, Rhee spoke of her time as the Chancellor of D.C. schools, citing dizzying statistics about her successes. She talked about once visiting a failing school where “kids were throwing desks out of windows” with “papers flying everywhere.” Sounds like fast times, to me. She then revisited later only to find the kids were “in uniforms, with shirts tucked in, ready to focus.” She did not mention the cheating scandal that resulted from her tenure. Rhee said that “schools need to be more welcoming to parents” and described the laziness of front office workers she witnessed “chatting on their cell phones” and “getting a cup of coffee,” instead of happily attending to “clients.” She said they needed to “smile” when parents come to visit a school. I know the office workers at my child’s school don’t have a lot to smile about right now given the prospect of their ever-increasing workload and always-pending lay-offs. And Rhee plugged a new feature film coming out in the spring, “Won’t Back Down,” as the counterpart to “Waiting for Superman,” which she and her husband cited several times during the one-hour-and-fifteen minute event as proof of something good. Never mind that much of it has been debunked as false.
And that was it. Rhee and her non-mayoral panelists fielded five vetted comments from an audience of several hundred. To be sure, much of what was said was the right stuff to say; the stuff many parents agree on: That kids should come first, that we need to get rid of the last-in/first-out policy, that all is not equal, that parents need to be at the table, that we all want something better for children in this city. But what wasn’t discussed—at all, nary a breath—were the solutions for which Rhee advocates. Solutions that continue to rely on standardized, high stakes testing as a legitimate and equal measure of all children; of test scores being used to determine a teacher’s effectiveness; the desire to dismantle the teacher’s union; the effort to close and privatize schools; the move to lift caps on how much public funding goes to charters.
It didn’t appear that Rhee wanted to talk about any of this last night. Then again, she was here to listen.