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‘Alternative’ Education: Using Charter Schools to Hide Dropouts and Game the System

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Betsy DeVos, the billionaire with zero experience in public education who now heads the Department of Education, is a big fan of charter (for-profit) schools and a big critic of public education. Heather Vogell and Hannah Fresques report in ProPublica:

School officials nationwide dodge accountability ratings by steering low achievers to alternative programs. In Orlando, Florida, the nation’s tenth-largest district, thousands of students who leave alternative charters run by a for-profit company aren’t counted as dropouts.

TUCKED AMONG POSH GATED COMMUNITIES, and meticulously landscaped shopping centers, Olympia High School in Orlando offers more than two dozen Advanced Placement courses, even more after-school clubs, and an array of sports from bowling to water polo. U.S. News and World Report ranked it among the nation’s top 1,000 high schools last year. Big letters painted in brown on one campus building urge its more than 3,000 students to “Finish Strong.”

Olympia’s success in recent years, however, has been linked to another, quite different school five miles away. Last school year, 137 students assigned to Olympia’s attendance zone instead attended Sunshine High, a charter alternative school run by a for-profit company. Sunshine stands a few doors down from a tobacco shop and a liquor store in a strip mall. It offers no sports teams and few extra-curricular activities.

Sunshine’s 455 students — more than 85 percent of whom are black or Hispanic — sit for four hours a day in front of computers with little or no live teaching. One former student said he was left to himself to goof off or cheat on tests by looking up answers on the internet. A current student said he was robbed near the strip mall’s parking lot, twice.

Sunshine takes in cast-offs from Olympia and other Orlando high schools in a mutually beneficial arrangement. Olympia keeps its graduation rate above 90 percent — and its rating an “A” under Florida’s all-important grading system for schools — partly by shipping its worst achievers to Sunshine. Sunshine collects enough school district money to cover costs and pay its management firm, Accelerated Learning Solutions (ALS), a more than $1.5 million-a-year “management fee,” 2015 financial records show — more than what the school spends on instruction.

But students lose out, a ProPublica investigation found. Once enrolled at Sunshine, hundreds of them exit quickly with no degree and limited prospects. The departures expose a practice in which officials in the nation’s tenth-largest school district have for years quietly funneled thousands of disadvantaged students — some say against their wishes –into alternative charter schools that allow them to disappear without counting as dropouts.

“I would show up, I would sit down and listen to music the whole time. I didn’t really make any progress the whole time I was there,” said Thiago Mello, 20, who spent a year at Sunshine and left without graduating. He had transferred there from another alternative charter school, where he enrolled after his grades slipped at Olympia.

The Orlando schools illustrate a national pattern. Alternative schools have long served as placements for students who violated disciplinary codes. But since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 refashioned the yardstick for judging schools, alternative education has taken on another role: A silent release valve for high schools like Olympia that are straining under the pressure of accountability reform.

As a result, alternative schools at times become warehouses where regular schools stow poor performers to avoid being held accountable. Traditional high schools in many states are free to use alternative programs to rid themselves of weak students whose test scores, truancy and risk of dropping out threaten their standing, a ProPublica survey of state policies found.

Concerns that schools artificially boosted test scores by dumping low achievers into alternative programs have surfaced in connection with ongoing litigation in Louisiana and Pennsylvania, and echo findings from a legislative report a decade ago in California. The phenomenon is borne out by national data: While the number of students in alternative schools grew moderately over the past 15 years, upticks occurred as new national mandates kicked in on standardized testing and graduation rates.

The role of charter alternative schools like Sunshine — publicly funded but managed by for-profit companies — is likely to grow under the new U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, an ardent supporter of school choice. In her home state of Michigan, charter schools have been responsible in part for a steep rise in the alternative school population. She recently portrayed Florida as a national model for charters and choice.

In Orlando, both traditional and alternative charter schools manipulate the accountability system. The charters exploit a loophole in state regulations: By coding hundreds of students who leave as withdrawing to enter adult education, such as GED classes, Sunshine claims virtually no dropouts. State rules don’t label withdrawals for that reason as dropping out. But ALS officials cannot say where Sunshine students actually went — or if they even took GED classes at all.

Between the day in 2012 when it first opened, and the end of the 2015 school year, Sunshine High coded 1,230 withdrawals as students leaving for adult education. At least nine of the company’s other charter schools statewide — including three in Orange County — followed a similar pattern. Not counting Sunshine, the other ALS schools in Florida reported 5,260 more such withdrawals. . .

Continue reading.

These schools are ripping off taxpayers, hiding from accountability, and terribly short-changing the students in their charge. And with the Trump administration in general and Betsy DeVos in particular, it’s going to get worse. Our country needs a citizenry that is educated enough to be self-governing. The fact that there are forces working against that is an indication to me that the country’s well-being is being systematically undermined.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 February 2017 at 8:38 am

Posted in Education

How Elton Musk remembers things (and gets insights)

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Absolutely fascinating answer on Quora.com by Denis Matei, “aspiring psychologist.” In particular, watch the video in the answer. It builds very slowly and doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere, even after the request for an example, but then at the end it just comes together very quickly. And it has impact. Answer begins (but do read the whole thing—and watch that video all the way through):

Elon uses the “Richard Feynman” technique from what I have read about his approach, mixed with “first principles”.

…which is basically in simple terms: don’t try to remember, but try to understand; when you understand, you will remember automatically.

Sounds simple? But yet, so many people don’t do it like that. They try to cram loads of info and facts into their brains, especially students, with the result of forgetting a lot of it.

So how does Elon do it?

‘’One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, ie the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.”

Quote from Elon Musk on Reddit.

So what Elon basically does is, he looks at the most fundamental principle of any subject matter, instead of separating the subject matters into smaller pieces. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 February 2017 at 5:27 pm

Posted in Daily life, Education

Team Trump Rewrites a Department of Energy Website for Kids

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Patrick G. Lee reports in ProPublica:

Almost 20 years ago, the U.S. Energy Information Administration had an idea: Make an educational website for children about energy sources and the science behind them.

In short order, the EIA created “Energy Kids,” which now features energy-themed sudoku and crossword puzzles, colorful pie charts and a know-it-all mascot called Energy Ant. Images of a school bus parked between a coal plant and an oil rig adorn the bottom of the web page, along with drawings of wind turbines, solar panels and an energy-efficient lightbulb.

During the Obama administration, Energy Kids even won multiple international awards for its content and design, as well as one from a digital publishing company that hailed it as “the best of the best in open and engaging government.”

The Trump administration, it seems, wasn’t altogether impressed with the site or its awards. In recent weeks, language on the website describing the environmental impacts of energy sources has been reworked, and two pie charts concerning the link between coal and greenhouse gas emissions have been removed altogether.

On a page dedicated to coal, the following sentences were deleted: “In the United States, most of the coal consumed is used as a fuel to generate electricity. Burning coal produces emissions that adversely affect the environment and human health.”

The two pie charts that were axed showed that although coal generated only 42 percent of total U.S. electricity in 2014, it created 76 percent of total carbon dioxide emissions linked to electricity generation.

“Impact” seems to have been a word the new administration disliked in particular.

The sentence “Reuse and recycling can also reduce coal’s environmental impact” was changed to “Reuse and recycling can also reduce the environmental effects of coal production and use.” “Underground mines have less of an impact on the environment compared to surface mines” became “Underground mines generally have a lesser effect on the landscape compared to surface mines.” “Impacts of coal mining” was changed to “Effects of coal mining,” and “Reducing the environmental impacts of coal use” became “Reducing the environmental effects of coal use.”

In a section on oil, the sentence, “There are environmental concerns associated with hydraulic fracturing” became “Hydraulic fracturing has some effects on the environment.”

On a separate kids’ page for greenhouse gases, a paragraph detailing the U.S. share of global carbon dioxide emissions was also deleted:

“The United States, with 4 percent of the world’s population, produced about 17 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels in 2011, the most recent year for which global data are available. The United States has the world’s largest economy and meets 83 percent of its energy needs by burning fossil fuels.”

Another change involved shrinking a paragraph into footnote-sized font. The minimized text includes a description of methane as “a strong greenhouse gas” that results from coal mining. In the same paragraph, the sentence “Learn more about greenhouse gas emissions” — along with a link to the EIA’s page on “Where Greenhouse Gases Come From” — was deleted. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 February 2017 at 2:17 pm

Be careful what you wish for: A new study suggests that school vouchers could actually hurt organized religion

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Matthew Rozsa has an interesting post in Salon:

Although school vouchers may be a boondoggle to churches, a new study from The National Bureau of Economic Research finds that “they offer financial stability for congregations while at the same time diminishing their religious activities.”

The National Bureau of Economic Research found that more than 80 percent of private school students in the 2011/2012 school year attended a religiously-affiliated school, with Catholicism being the most common religious affiliation. The authors studied 71 Catholic parishes in Milwaukee from 1999 to 2013.

“We find that expansion in voucher policy is, unsurprisingly, associated with increases in voucher revenues for parishes with schools,” the study stated. “We also find that voucher expansion prevents parish closures and mergers.”

At the same time, the authors seemed surprised to discover that vouchers do not subsidize religious activity beyond the operation of religious schools. Rather, the opposite occurred. “Vouchers cause a significant decrease in spending on non-school religious purposes such as religious staff salaries, mission support, and church maintenance. We also find that voucher programs lead to a significant decrease in church donations,” the study continued.

Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on whether one believes that religious institutions should focus on religion or on making money by supplanting public schools. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 February 2017 at 3:15 pm

Posted in Education, Religion

Erstwhile conservative provides advice for his conservative students

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Aaron Hanlon, an English professor at Colby College, writes in the NY Times:

Conservative media outlets have built a cottage industry of outrage on the premise that conservative students are victims of a “tyrannical” campus left. I know this message well, because over a decade ago, as a conservative student at Bucknell, I helped devise and spread it.

I am now a much more liberal professor. In the early 2000s, as I watched conservatives embrace the Patriot Act after Sept. 11, reject marriage equality and insist on authority over women’s reproductive health decisions, the libertarian streak that brought me to conservatism began pulling me to the left. But I still care deeply for the liberty of my conservative students. For this reason I have some advice for those in college who are concerned about their freedom of speech.

I was a reasonably good-natured kid from a modest Catholic household when I showed up to my liberal arts campus. Then suddenly I wasn’t me, the individual. I was just white. It seemed that everyone was celebrating diversity and multiculturalism, and I didn’t see a role for myself in that. It occurred to me, as it has to countless other conservative students, that I might also be a kind of minority — an “ideological minority” — because of my conservative political views.

My fellow conservative students and I half-ironically borrowed the language of the multiculturalist left and applied it to ourselves. The left talked about women and students of color as victims of historical and institutional inequality because of things like patriarchy, slavery and Jim Crow. Most of us conservatives didn’t suffer from similar injustices, but we saw ourselves nevertheless as victims of ideological oppression.

Continue reading the main story

I was pretty good at spreading this narrative, in large part because I had one of the loudest voices on campus. I edited the op-ed section of the student newspaper, participated in public speaking and debating events, and spoke out frequently in my classes (garnering more than a few eye-rolls). I wrote thousand-word essays on how the campus stifled free speech that were then published in college-funded newsletters. My Conservatives Club colleagues and I received national attention. Some were featured on the cover of The New York Times Magazine, and others got booked on popular TV shows like “The O’Reilly Factor.” In short, for an oppressed minority group whose speech was stifled, we had an awful lot of press.

What I’m getting at is that I was never a victim. My message to conservative students is that neither are you. The leaders and pundits who say otherwise are doing you a disservice. Sure, they’re getting a lot of clicks and selling ads by framing your struggle as one of an embattled minority silenced by the overbearing liberalism of academia, but that false equivalence is not helping you prepare for the wider world.

Outside of college, most people don’t care about what you care about — not because you’re a conservative but because you’re a person in a diverse world, ideologically and otherwise. The better you are at convincing people to care about what you care about, the more politically effective you will be. You know the world doesn’t love a victim. Don’t adopt a posture you disagree with just because it plays well in conservative media.

Exercising your voice is not forbidden, but it does take courage on a liberal campus. It won’t be easy and people will not always like you for it. In college, I was rejected by a girl specifically because I was conservative and that hurt, but not enough to justify silencing myself. If anything, it helped me better correct the left’s misconceptions about my beliefs.

I’m still very proud of the level of analysis and rigor I put into my work as a student. I may not have sharpened my skills in the same way if everyone agreed with me. You can and should be proud of good-faith political engagement. The point is: You have a voice and ideas that people need to hear, but don’t compare disagreement with your ideas to suppression.

Many conservative students denounced . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 February 2017 at 10:25 am

Posted in Daily life, Education, GOP

Things that make me lose heart: School lunch division

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It’s depressing how difficult it is to implement changes that are obviously for the better, particularly when those changes are to improve things for children. One of the weaknesses of capitalism is that it has no moral sense.

The chart below is from a must-read article I have already blogged, but I just could not get this out of my mind:

screen-shot-2017-02-12-at-12-30-34-pm

I highly recommend reading the article itself, “Revenge of the Lunch Lady.” It’s depressing the degree to which the welfare of children counts for nothing in political calculus.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 February 2017 at 12:39 pm

The casual cruelty of the Republican party and the emergence of a local hero

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Jane Black has an article at Huffington Post, “Revenge of the Lunch Lady,” that is totally worth reading just for the personal drama and vindication of a government employee. Read the whole thing, but let me quote just one section. (The article is long, but fascinating.)

. . . To those unfamiliar with the absurdist theater of school lunch, it is puzzling, even maddening, that feeding kids nutritious food should be so hard. You buy good food. You cook it. You serve it to hungry kids.

Yet the National School Lunch Program, an $11.7 billion behemoth that feeds more than 31 million children each day, is a mess, and has been for years. Conflicts of interest were built into the program. It was pushed through Congress after World War II with the support of military leaders who wanted to ensure that there would be enough healthy young men to fight the next war, and of farmers who were looking for a place to unload their surplus corn, milk and meat. The result was that schools became the dumping ground for the cheap calories our modern agricultural system was designed to overproduce.

This tension has played out over and over again, with children usually ending up the losers. A case in point: In 1981, America was awash in surplus dairy. The government’s Inland Storage and Distribution Center—a network of tunnels beneath Kansas City, Missouri—was filled with 200 million pounds of cheese and butter, stacked “like frozen pillars and stretching over acres of gray stone floor,” according to The Associated Press. In an effort to ease the glut, the USDA purchased millions of pounds of dairy for schools. But, according to Janet Poppendieck, a professor at Hunter College who specializes in poverty and hunger, this encouraged dairy farmers to keep on milking. So in 1986 the government had to create a new program, the Whole Herd Buyout, which paid farmers to slaughter the dairy cows. The government then bought the beef, which was turned into hamburger, taco meat and so on for school lunch.

That flood of meat and dairy hiked the fat content of school meals just as the country was descending into an anti-fat frenzy. In 1990, the federal government issued new dietary guidelines, declaring that a healthy diet should contain no more than 30 percent fat, with a 10 percent cap on saturated fat. But cafeterias simply had too much of the wrong food to comply. In a USDA study of 544 schools conducted several years later, only 1 percent met the requirement for overall fat and just a single school had managed to keep saturated fat to a healthy level. The deeply conflicted nature of the program was showing itself once again.

Since the 1990s, the USDA has made many improvements—it now requires that canned vegetables have less salt and insists that ground beef be 95 percent lean. But school lunch is still a disgrace, and the timidity of Congress is largely to blame. In 2011, the USDA proposed limiting the amount of potatoes and other starchy vegetables permitted in school lunches so that cafeterias could make room for healthier options. But the Senate, led by members from two top potato producers, Maine and Colorado, killed the idea in a unanimous vote. Then there’s the pizza lobby. When the 2010 revision of nutrition standards increased the minimum amount of tomato paste required for pizza to count as a vegetable from two tablespoons—the typical amount found on a slice—to half a cup, the National Frozen Pizza Institute and other groups howled, and Congress opted for the status quo. The idea that pizza might not be considered a vegetable was, apparently, un-American.

What makes school lunch so contentious, though, isn’t just the question of what kids eat, but of which kids are doing the eating. As Poppendieck recounts in her book, Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, the original program provided schools with food and, later, cash to subsidize the cost of meals. But by the early 1960s, schools weren’t receiving enough to feed all their students, and many pulled out of the program. As a result, middle-class students, whose parents could cover the difference between the government subsidy and the actual cost of a meal, ended up benefiting the most from school lunch, while the truly needy went hungry. This moral failing became clear in 1968, when a landmark report called “Their Daily Bread” revealed that only one-third of the 6 million children living in poverty were receiving free or subsidized lunch. Schools’ ability to pay for food was so limited that one in Mississippi rotated 100 lunches among more than 400 students, while another in Alabama had just 15 meals for 1,000 needy kids. School lunch had its first official scandal.

In response, Congress, which had preferred to let schools decide who got to eat and who did not, established a three-tiered system. Students from families with incomes up to 25 percent above the federal poverty line—about $3,300 for a family of four, or around $24,000 in today’s dollars—were entitled to free meals. Those from families with incomes between 25 and 95 percent above the poverty line paid a reduced price, while everyone else paid the full price. (Just to make things extra confusing, schools also received a small subsidy for those meals as well). This system had the virtue of guaranteeing that the poorest children would be fed. But it also transformed school lunch from a program designed to feed all students into one for the poor.

Once school lunch was perceived as welfare, it became a target. President Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980 on a promise to slash domestic spending, attacked the program. It was one thing to help the genuinely needy, Reagan’s budget director David Stockman declared, but it was “wasteful” to support middle- and upper-class families who could afford to buy lunch. What he didn’t mention was that the cutoff for a free meal was nowhere near a middle-class income and excluded many kids who needed the help.

Still, Congress agreed to cut the small subsidy for full-price lunches by more than a third. The effect was quick and severe. Lunch prices rose, and in the space of just three years, more than a quarter of the kids in the full-price tier stopped buying school lunch. With fewer students participating and smaller reimbursements for each meal served, schools lost their (already limited) economies of scale. The ensuing budget crisis forced schools to seek out even cheaper food—the highly processed stuff, such as chicken nuggets and corn dogs, that they are now condemned for serving. And on it goes.

Not that any of these cautionary tales have diminished the Republicans’ desire to gut the program. In 2014, now-House Speaker Paul Ryan said that public assistance, including school lunch, offered a “full stomach and an empty soul” because it made kids reliant on government handouts. With the party now in control of Congress and the White House—and with Michelle Obama, the program’s greatest defender, gone—school lunch is as vulnerable as it’s ever been.

One Republican strategy to hobble school lunch involves changing an innocuous-sounding proposal called the Community Eligibility Provision. The formula for CEP is complex, but it essentially allows schools in high-poverty areas to provide free meals to all students. This alleviates the administrative burden of keeping track of who qualifies for which tier, and allows money that would normally be spent on administration to go toward paying cooks or buying better food instead.

Judging by its popularity among food service directors, CEP has been one of the most successful innovations in school-lunch policy in decades. Studies show the program reduces the long-standing stigma for kids getting free lunch and enables those who don’t qualify for subsidized meals, but who actually need them, to eat if they’re hungry. This prevents situations like the one that took place last fall, when a school cafeteria worker in Pennsylvania resigned after having to take away the lunch of a first-grader whose parents failed to pay their bill. Not surprisingly, CEP has been embraced in impoverished areas like North Dakota, Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia, where food-service directors have been forced to hire collection agencies to chase down parents who haven’t paid for their kids’ meals.

Conservatives insist that it’s not the taxpayers’ job to cover for negligent parents. Todd Rokita, an Indiana Republican who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees school food, called CEP “perverse,” alleging that it incentivizes schools to give free meals to students who either already pay or are capable of paying for school lunch. This despite the fact that schools, like most places in America, have become increasingly segregated by socioeconomics over the last two decades. So the throngs of coddled middle-class kids Rokita thinks are eating for free don’t actually exist.

Rhonda McCoy is emphatic that kids shouldn’t be punished for their families’ financial situations. “It’s not their fault that the parents didn’t pay the bill,” she said. Before CEP, she remembers getting calls, which she said “broke my heart,” about students who chose to go hungry rather than have an embarrassing conversation about money. But if Rokita wins this battle, more than 7,000 schools, feeding nearly 3.4 million kids, will once again have to start charging for some meals. In West Virginia, the new formula would exclude 327 schools, including all 26 in Cabell County. “This would all be over,” McCoy told me. “It would kill us.” . . .

Written by LeisureGuy

11 February 2017 at 4:52 pm

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