REVOLVING DOOR: Former NY deputy commissioner now running Jeb Bush’s ed reform group
By: A N.Y. BAT
After all the suffering New York students, parents and educators have gone through in rejecting top-down education reform, it’s insulting to see the official dubbed “NY’s teacher evaluation czar” trying to imply she “raised achievement” during her tenure here. Welcome to elastic reality, where chaos, waste and mass protest become “improved quality”.
Chiefs for Change was created by Jeb Bush to promote school choice, charters, vouchers, online charter schools, the Common Core, and high-stakes testing. They reorganized as Bush stepped away for his short-lived 2016 presidential run, but he has since announced a return to ed reform. So who runs the organization now? The former deputy commissioner who oversaw NY’s teacher evaluation debacle.
REFORMERS REWARDED: As Steven Singer reported, Jeb Bush has been raising money for education reform “infrastructure” from billionaires, corporations and Wall Street investors for years. In 2012, DC’s biggest lobbyist John Podesta (who is running the Hillary campaign today) joined Jeb onstage in a bipartisan truce to announce they were recruiting teachers and politicians willing to “stick out their necks” for corporate reform, promising an amplified voice, career grooming and ample remuneration.
Podesta is credited for picking Arne Duncan for Secretary of Education, so he means it when he says he wants to promote reformers. Today, they need figureheads badly as most US states have changed education leadership in the last year as the transition to ESSA begins. Prominently featured on the Chiefs for Change website is this:
“As Chief Operating Officer, Julia Rafal-Baer, Ph.D., develops our organizational capacity for sustained growth, strengthens our decision-making processes and goal-setting, and drives the strategic direction of Chiefs for Change.
Prior to joining our team, Julia was Assistant Commissioner of the New York State Education Department where she was responsible for the strategy, management, and implementation of teacher and leader initiatives under the state’s Race to the Top grant, Teacher Incentive Fund grant, and other state-wide initiatives, managing more than $150 million in federal funds. Julia directed, coordinated, and recommended policies and programs designed to raise the achievement of students and improve the quality and diversity of the education workforce.”
REVISIONIST HISTORY: In reality, Dr. Rafal-Baer’s policies in NY were met with deep resistance, found “arbitrary and capricious” in state Supreme Court and suspended after costing taxpayers untold millions. Achievement gaps and school segregation widened, and teacher workforce morale has tanked, with untested, top-down initiatives the biggest reported driver of workplace stress by far.
During Dr. Rafal-Baer’s tenure at NYSED, mandated annual standardized testing expanded from four days to six and included data-mining, product placement and “talking pineapples”. Her department has been squarely blamed by Governor Cuomo for botching the implementation of Common Core (in fairness, we know he is just as responsible) which led to 22% of parents statewide today refusing the tests.
Not that she didn’t work hard — she personally approved the APPR application of every NY school district (after requiring half to be resubmitted). These APPR plans, numbering over 1,000, prescribed how test scores would be counted in teacher evaluations, but for most NY teachers, the policy ponderously uses test scores from subjects they do not teach. When asked, the department said “common planning” accounts for the validity of the test-based ranking.
Actually it doesn’t — even for teachers of math and English, the practice of measuring a teacher’s proficiency through student scores was hauled into court, where the state refused to reveal secret algorithms, or produce experts to defend the validity of the practice. By 2015, a four year moratorium on APPR was announced.
METEORITIC RISE: Starting as a special ed teacher in the Bronx, Dr. Rafal-Baer left after two years to work for TFA while she obtained several impressive degrees, leading her next into the corporate and philanthropy sector. As Race to the Top money headed to the states, Dr. Rafal-Baer was appointed a Regents Research Fellow, joining a privately-funded, secret committee that was criticized for helping Commissioner John King shape policy outside of normal public accountability and transparency channels.
THROUGH THE REVOLVING DOOR: This led to a “teacher effectiveness” position with NYSED in 2010 and by 2014, appointment as Deputy Commissioner, demonstrating how quickly one moves up through the ranks if they embrace corporate reform. Dr. Rafal-Baer left NY in 2015 and apparently now works simultaneously as COO for this pro-reform group and the state of Rhode Island where she consults on education policy.
MORE ARBITRARY THAN CAPRICIOUS: This is not to disparage or single out Dr. Rafal-Baer. Indeed, it’s precisely because she is well-intentioned and well-versed in education policy that reformers want her on the team, to tout her credibility and caché. In the end, Dr. Rafal-Baer’s programs punished very few teachers, with local unions negotiating evaluation plans “for all” based on a “safe” test in one subject, chosen locally.
This cost local schools dearly however, forcing cuts to comply with the evaluation policy, combined with an unfunded transition to Common Core. Local taxpayers bought an invalid metric, and incredibly, this same cost continues today, even as the current moratorium makes the policy toothless.
Now the US Secretary of Education, John King is bucking Congress, trying to enforce test-participation quotas by withholding funds from schools, taking Albany’s “blackmail” practices to the national level. It’s impossible to characterize this brand of ed reform in NY as anything but tumultuous and extraordinarily wasteful. The calls for the resignation of Dr. Rafal-Baer’s mentors John King and Merryl Tisch preceded the dawn of the biggest opt-out movement in the US.
Dr. Rafal-Baer’s tweets indicate deep loyalty to controversial former Commissioner John King
We all want to see student learning increase, but too much time in the boardroom and not enough time in a classroom distorts how this gets done. The exorbitant paychecks keep reformers compliant to benefactors, and less attuned to student need or the will of the people. Of those RTTT millions, how much reached classrooms as the state went shopping for junk-science accountability schemes that were never tested for reliability?
We have learned painfully every year since No Child Left Behind first assumed federal control of local schools that there are no shortcuts. Trying to standardize teaching goes against best practices in the field of education and the science of child development. We do have major challenges in our nation’s schools, but solutions are not found on Wall Street, in a politician’s office or in any corporate headquarters.
Classroom teachers and parents see the harm to children, the waste, false promises and cronyism in the privatization movement. Backed by science and real world experience, the argument against corporatization of learning is more solid than ever.
FEEL FREE TO DO AS I SAY: The onslaught continues unabated, illustrated perfectly by this Chiefs for Change paper advising states on ESSA, the new law that just pushed back on ed reform. They recommend states use their new flexibility to go right back to NCLB era practices of data collection, standardization and top-down control, recommending states return to “innovation funds” which sound great but diverts money for more “monitoring and evaluation”. Wasn’t tying support for struggling schools to state run accountability systems the reason America just dumped NCLB?
It’s time to recognize how these fake think tanks and front groups compromise democracy. This experiment has been failing for 15 years, yet they are pushing the same policies today onto a new generation of children.
WHAT WE NEED: Hillary Clinton said herself we need to “sit at one table” to end these “education wars”. She also explicitly vowed to “end the revolving door”. It is time for open debate on the efficacy of ALEC legislation in schools, pay-for-play and astroturfing. Good ideas hold up under tough scrutiny and real world piloting. If we stop treating education like politics, we can put the mistakes of the testing era behind us.