Archive for September, 2014

The Trouble with DFER

Monday, September 15th, 2014

The media has been filled with news about the initial start of pre-kindergarten classes. Bill De Blasio, New York City mayor, has made the biggest leap. Several states have been building up such a program for many years: Oklahoma and Tennessee are two examples. Thus, President Obama has seen light glimmering for one of his education reforms.

At the same time, struggle goes on over Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and how to implement them in a responsible way. Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a title calculated to mislead, is one of the stalwarts in stirring up trouble about procedures. On the one hand, its website espouses opening the top-down education monopoly that its board sees as taking away power from parents. Reading between the lines that means parents should have access to vouchers so they can choose to send their children to any school that’s not failing.

On the website, it states that schools are captive to powerful entrenched interests that want to preserve the position of adults, not students. Guess what those words infer? Teachers unions! One of DFER’s purposes is to spend money on candidates for office that support its ideas. Can you guess who is not getting support?

Another strong statement on the website advocates accountability at public schools and closure of failing schools. The statement infers testing and Value Added Measures for scores and teacher evaluation based on the percentage of students who pass these exams. As has been stated many times in posts on this blog, an evaluation process is easy to design but difficult to implement fairly. Until the assessment process is sorted out country-wide, teacher evaluation based on test scores is not valid.

For those who dig deep into the education reform movement, examine the board for DFER. One will find lots of well-known educators who, in the past, have promoted liberal education ideas. And a lot of hedge fund members who often choose philanthropy that is supposed to help impoverished children but is also easy for results-oriented business executives to understand (see Joe Nocera). Thus, charter schools proliferate, like many in New York City, Los Angeles, Denver, and other big cities with troubled schools. Are hedge fund executives suddenly knowledgeable about education in the public schools? No.

Joe Williams is the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform in addition to running Education Reform Now, a non-profit, and Education Reform Now Advocacy Committee, Inc., its 501c4 advocacy affiliate. If one reads the articles named in his biography, they range from liberal to conservative viewpoints. Often they are published by the conservative Hoover Institute in California. The CA DFER is led by Steve Barr, known from the Profile in The New Yorker about Green Dot Schools (charters) that do allow union representation. What do you think? It’s Los Angeles! Eli Broad, the big money man in Los Angeles is a DFER supporter.

On the other hand, Diane Ravitch, who once backed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and at one time was supportive of DFER is now against its efforts as well as against most government efforts to remodel public schools. A quote from her blog states that the business model is not transferable to education. Many teachers will agree with that position. Ravitch also stomped on a Colorado DFER member when she said professional educators do make a difference when teaching children, but that won’t happen when a school district continues to hire short-term teachers because they’re cheap.

Last, Paul Horton, a history teacher at University High School at the University of Chicago Lab Schools, wrote to the president, castigating his support for Race to the Top and Teach For America among other ideas with unintended consequences loved by DFER, promoted by the U.S. Department of Education and Arne Duncan.

As Michael Hirsch in an article in the New York Teacher way back in December 2010 warned, should you wait to see how DFER’s conservative ideas like vouchers, merit pay based on faulty assessment plans, and curbs on tenure play out?