Sunday, February 23, 2014

Corporate Reformers: Architects of Apartheid Education

Corporate Reformers: Architects of Apartheid Education

Alfie Kohn, a leading author and lecturer on progressive education, spoke Thursday evening at Macalester college in St. Paul, MN as part of the Theodore Mitau Lecture Series.  The event was hosted by Macalester's political science department.  A regular speaker at education conferences, Kohn noted the unique setting and focused more on educational policy than pedagogy.  His speech was titled, "Many Children Left Behind: "School Reform" and Corporate-Style Education Policy."

Kohn highlighted a number of destructive features of the corporate education reforms.  Among these, he discussed the increasingly poor experience forced on children who have historically been the most underserved: children of color, low-income students, English language learners, and special education students..   He was visibly angered by what the corporate reformers are doing to the children they claim to be trying to help, such as depriving them of recess time and exposure to the arts and music.   He also highlighted the "reformers" obsession with competition as a strategy to improve schools, as they ignore the fact that competition means there must be "losers."

Corporate reformers have been using the "invisible hand" of the "free market" to actively destroy our system of universal public education for decades.  Blind faith in competition has resulted in each school "marketing" itself to earn "customers."  In Minneapolis, it means our school district (MPS) holds its annual School Fair Showcase in which representatives from each school are pitted against one another, encouraged to persuade confused parents and students that their school is best.  This process has been corrupted further as politicians and "reformers" have convinced much of the public that test scores are the best way to determine the quality of a school.

The School Fair Showcase coincides with the time of year when mailboxes have almost daily postcards from local charter schools also vying for "customers."  My family received a card from a local charter school chain that operates one of their schools just a few blocks from our home.  It is operated and supported by the First Family of corporate education reformers here in Minnesota - the Kramers.

We could play a game of Six Degrees of Separation with the Kramers and all the corporate reform groups in Minnesota, but that would be a little boring.  The Kramers are either part of every major corporate reform group in the state, or just one "degree" away.  Edushyster has also documented some of the family's connections, but here are the highlights.

The Kramers - Minnesota's First Family of Corporate Education.

The family patriarch is Joel Kramer.  Joel made his fortune in the newspaper business and is now the CEO and editor of an online newspaper called Minnpost.  His wife, Laurie, is the Chief Revenue Officer for Minnpost.

Beth Hawkins is Minnpost's education "reporter."  Hawkins, must hold a record for the most "news" stories with a disclaimer. Her numerous articles about charter schools and the various corporate reform groups inevitably have ties to the Kramers, which compels her to try and distance herself from them.  Hawkins appears concerned with being seen as an "unbiased reporter" results in dislaimers that commonly include the following, "none of the aforementioned Kramers has been associated with any of my reporting on CSP or Hiawatha, except for that whole check-signing bit."

While Minnpost is a mouthpiece for the local corporate reformers, Joel's sons, Matt and Eli, are the two main actors.  Both sons grew up in Minnesota, got their starts in corporate education reform in New York, and both are back in Minnesota pushing the corporate agenda.

Matt Kramer originally worked for McKinsey and Company, a company that has played a lead role in the attacks on public education.  In 2005, he went to work for Teach for America (TFA), and is now the Co-Chief Executive Officer for TFA.  Matt's wife, Katie Barrett Kramer, is the Director for Academic Excellence at Charter School Partners in Minnesota.  She had been a TFA corp member in New York and was also a founding board member of Hiawatha Leadership Academy, a charter school in Minneapolis, part of the same Hiawatha Academies that recently sent me a postcard.

Eli Kramer was a 2003 TFA corp member and later worked for the Uncommon Schools, a Charter Management Organization (CMO) in New York.  Eli is now the Executive Director of Hiawatha Academy, the same charter school organization for which his sister-in-law served as a founding board member.  Eli's wife, Jessica Cordova Kramer, also started as a TFA corp member (2005).  She is now the "Vice President, Strategy & Operations, Alumni Affairs at Teach For America."

Hiawatha Academies: Charter Schools for "Other People's Children"

Hiawatha Academies started in 2007 and consists of two elementary schools and a middle school.  Eli Kramer is the Executive Director for all three schools, but his wife, brother, and sister-in-law all have a stake in the schools.  Current and former TFA corp members make up 65% of the charter schools' staff.  Matt Kramer and Jessica Cordova Kramer's have positions in TFA, and Katie Barrett Kramer is connected to Hiawatha both as an original board member and her postition at Charter School Partners (CSP).  Hiawatha Academies are CPS "Partner School."

So when an entire family is invested the corporate reform movement, and three Minneapolis charter schools in particular, what kind of education do they provide for their mostly low-income students and students of color?

Hiawatha Academy charters are schools that value compliance and test scores over critical thinking.  They are schools that indoctrinate rather than inspire.  As Alfie Kohn would say, they are schools that confuse rigor with learning, and they are schools in which scholars (what most of us know as students) have to "earn" their desks and chairs

Beth Hawkins wrote a story about Adelante College Prep, in which she seems to celebrate this disturbing approach to education.  Praising the atmosphere of compliance at Hiawatha Academy, Hawkins wrote, "students are spending the [first] week [of school] on mats in the lunchroom “earning” their chairs, desks and school shirts by getting one thing after another right."  She also noted that the 5th and 6th graders spent 90 minutes walking the halls the day she was there.  They had to do it until they all walked "single-file, in silence."  What was the teachers' rationale for this boot camp approach?  Teachers told their students, "In college... people walk in ones and twos conversing in soft voices."  Really?  That must be how students behave at Harvard where Eli Kramer went to school because I did not notice that at the University of Minnesota.

Students at Hiawatha Charter schools start at 7:50 a.m. and go until 4:15 p.m. (except on Fridays when they finish at 2 p.m.).  They start their school year in the third week of August and finish the third week of June.  This allows the school to boast of 40% more instructional time than a "traditional public school."  However, this extra time is filled with test prep and testing--and the school's calendar list little more than which test happens which day.

All of this begs a question.  Would Matt and Katie, or Eli and Jessica send their own children to the schools they operate, support, and profit from?  I do not know the Kramers personally, but it seems  the answer is no.

But why?  Why would they not want their own children to be "scholars...empowered with the knowledge, character, and leadership skills to graduate from college and serve the common good," as it says in Hiawatha Academy's mission statement?  Why would they not want "high expectations" and "40% more learning time than a traditional public school" for their own children?  Why would they not want their children to take numerous "standardized tests and other objective academic measures" to assess their "readiness for college and leadership?"

Not knowing the Kramers personally, maybe their own children will get to experience Hiawatha Academy's approach to school.  However, it seems they attend a very different school.  A school that sits kitty-corner from one of the  Kramer's charter schools.

The Best Education Money Can Buy

Adelante College Prep charter is Hiawatha Academy's middle school.  Just blocks from my own house, it is kitty corner from Lake Country School (LCS).  Lake Country is a private Montessori school with a pre-school, elementary, and middle school program.  Annual tuition at LCS ranges from $8,920 to $16,100.  As of last year, Matt, Katie, Eli, and Jessica were all listed as parents of children at Lake Country.  Do the children at Lake Country School have the same "rigorous" experience as the "scholars" of Adelante College Prep?

Lake Country's mission statement make no mention of "scholars" or "college-readiness."
"Lake Country School is a Montessori learning environment that fosters independence, critical thinking, and creativity within each child. We are a community that promotes diversity and inclusion, as well as respect and responsibility to self, to others, and to the earth."
I could only find two references to testing on Lake Country's calendar for the whole school year, and these references were hard to spot among the numerous field trips, class overnights, farm stays, community service days, potlucks, French week, sports and theater events. 

Lake Country School's website boasts about their experienced teaching staff.  60% of their staff has been there for more than a decade.  Compare that to Hiawatha Academy's Adelante College Prep across the street.  They boast of having 65% of their teachers as being Teach for America corp members or alumni.  TFA corp members receive only five weeks of training before entering their own classroom and are notorious for leaving the career within five years.

The curriculum of LCS is rich and student centered.  Their core values emphasize a Montessori approach that "nurtures the intellectual, emotional, social, physical, and spiritual potential of the whole child."  LCS focuses on building a "peaceful community" and encourages students to be "model citizens of a global community."  With respect to the "work" of learning, LCS promotes a "love of work" in an environment in which "children learn through purposeful activity carried out in developmentally appropriate urban and rural environments where the choice of meaningful work is expected and respected.

Compare that to Hiawatha's Adelante College Prep.  At Adelante, students are encouraged to "embody determination and relentless pursuit in the face of the economic, social, and political obstacles."  Adelante focuses on superficial details, calling on students to "complete 100% of their class work and homework, with special care taken in neatness and homework turned in on time."  Hiawatha focuses on the completion of tasks rather than depth of knowledge, critical thinking, and the needs of the whole child. 

Educational Apartheid

Eli and Matt Kramer not only sent their children to Lake Country School, but they are alumni themselves.  Eli went on to the private and prestigious Breck School in Minnesota, and Matt went to the equally elite Saint Paul Academy and Summit School(SPA).  Tuition at both schools is currently around $25,000 a year, and these schools all have less instructional time than "traditional public schools.  I do not think Breck or SPA offer the ideal educational experiences, but they are far better than what charter schools like Hiawatha Leadership Academy peddle.  Open, progressive, democratic schools in the mold of Maria Montessori, John Dewey, and Pablo Freire present the best hope for our students and our public schools.  The charter schools pushed by the corporate reformers are actually eating away at the types of public schools these educators advocated.

We have examples across the nation of corporate education reformers who reserve one form of education for themselves and their children and create another for "other people's children."   We see it with Obama sending his own children to Sidwell Friends School, and Rahm Emanuel sending his children to the University of Chicago Lab School.  R.T. Rybak, our former mayor of Minneapolis, turned full time corporate deformer, has also followed this path.  Edushyster has explained how the corporate education reformers push to create a two-tiered system of schools.

Photo by Ken Fager:

Jonathan Kozol was not using hyperbole when he said, "Apartheid Education rarely mentioned in the press or openly confronted even among once-progressive educators, is alive and well and rapidly increasing now in the United States."  Corporate reformers are not fighting the "Civil Rights issue of our time," they are building an apartheid education system.  True progressives cannot be complicit.  We cannot be silent.  We must demand for all children, the education we want for our own.

Posted by Rob Panning-Miller


EquityJane said...

That situation exists not only in charter/private schools, but in the public schools in the same neighborhood referenced in this article. Lyndale, the community school, is 75% poverty and 50% ELL, while Barton, the magnet school, is one of the most affluent schools in the district and doesn't have any special ed programs or even offer spanish ELL (in a highly spanish-speaking community). Not to mention the fact that many MPS teachers who teach at high-poverty schools send their own children to Barton. Educational apartheid indeed!

RobPM said...

Equity Jane, glad you could put together an anonymous profile just in time to comment on this post. While it is true that educational apartheid exists within public schools as well, your implication that it is caused by teachers is simply wrong. It suggests public school teachers actually control the structures or even the curriculum which, unfortunately, is not true. Charter school operators DO control their structure and curriculum. Educational equity requires teachers, parents, and students reclaiming THEIR PUBLIC schools.

EquityJane said...

Nope, not blaming teachers. I'm an educator and a union-supporter. But before we call out others for "educational apartheid" and the creation of schools for "other people's children", we should examine the system that we ourselves have created in MPS, and thus have an opportunity to change for the better. On my corner (38th and Pleasant!) white affluent MPS families get on a bus for white affluent magnet schools that don't offer Spanish ELL services. Is choice for them okay, but not for Latino families? This is a real social justice issue that families and teachers and school communities could take on, but for decades have chosen not to. Our actions and choices have an impact, and speak louder than words. We should all look in the mirror before we throw stones at schools for other people's children.---Jane Onsrud, parent and MPS employee.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post. I attended one of Don Fraser's brown bag lunch affairs, Eli Kramer told a group of us there that he would never allow his teachers to unionize.

Steve said...

Desegregation of the Minneapolis Public Schools is currently nowhere to be found on the radar of the administration at MPS.

RobPM said...

Jane says: "we should examine the system that we ourselves have created in MPS"

Who is this "we?" Teacher have not created the educational system in MPS. Most teachers have spoken against the charter-like "reforms" imposed on us and our schools. I agree with you, Jane, that this is a social justice issue, but if you don't know who is actually responsible you'll never correct it. Please join with PEJAM in the fight against the corporate reformers, both inside the District and out.

Anonymous said...

EquityJane, define "Spanish ELL"...the majority of Barton's (15%) ELL population is Somali. The resource goes where the students enroll. Barton has Somali language support, as well as a robust ELL program.

EquityJane said...

Rob, by "we", I mean: "teachers, parents, students, and community members dedicated to defending and supporting a fully funded, just, equitable, and democratic system of public education". We believe in public education, but what are we willing to fight for, and when are we silent?

Your critique of Adelante vs. Lake Country rings hollow when the exact situation exists in the same neighborhood-at the schools in which "we" teach, send our children and vigorously defend. Schools we have power to influence and shape. I'm asking if we are willing to examine our own role as teachers, parents, principals and site councils in the creation of educational apartheid.

Do we ask ourselves why a charter school for Latinos has been so successful in this neighborhood? Maybe corporate reformers have flourished because no one else has come to bat for groups that are failing. Does Barton have any responsibility to the Latino families in the community?

Anonymous: Barton enrolled 3 Kindergarten students receiving ELL services last year, and 8 this year. If the ELL program was ever robust (12% in a District that is 65%) it is certainly in drastic decline. Yes, "the resource goes where students enroll". Adelante is out recruiting. Is Barton? Is it questioning the factors that lead to it's current demographics (choice process, teacher preference, wait lists, etc)?

Jefferson and Green Central each serve over 200 Spanish EL students, and Lyndale/Ramsey serves over 100. Barton serves less than 10. Is this equitable? 94% of ELL K students in Area C schools attend high-poverty schools. Is this equitable? What are we willing to do about it?

EquityJane said...

Correction: The District is 26% ELL and 65% FRL. MDE has Barton at 11% ELL.

Maliah said...

I wonder who makes more, Eva Moskowitz, Deborah Kenny, or Eli Kramer?

Joe said...

This family exploits the "achievement" gap, at the expense of children and communities of MPS.

Anonymous said...

The "achievement gap" is their bread and butter. They are are fleecing tax dollars and pawning off test prep centers to the marginalized.

Unknown said...

We have examples across the nation of corporate education reformers who reserve one form of education for themselves and their children and create another for "other people's children."

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