Monday, March 18, 2019

The College Admission Scandal from a Public School Educator’s Perspective

A particular news that otherwise would be of interest only to a small percent of Americans, carried too much drama for the media not to cover it widely— the largest college admission cheating scandal in history! Chiefly, the interest was triggered by the famous, wealthy, and well connected characters in this show. According to ABC Nightline, the operation “Varsity Blues” exposed a massive admission cheating scheme that included well known TV stars, Silicone Valley tycoons, a hedge fund CEO Manager, and a head of a prestigious law firm among others. All of them wealthy enough to pay generously a consultant company that guaranteed them to get their children into elite colleges. 

If learning about the existence of private consultant companies dedicated to help candidates to enter elite universities was not interesting enough, the fact that this particular company showed no scruples whatsoever to achieve its client’s wishes definitely provided intriguing angles. For one, it is alarming to realize the wealthy clients’ disposition to pay up to hundreds of thousands of dollars on what it was clearly an illegal scheme. In addition, it amazes the extent of this company’s corruptive activities to guarantee success -- falsifying documents, altering SAT scores, doctoring photographs, bribing SAT proctors, coaches, and athletic directors, and even fabricating sports qualifications. 

However, what tops it all is the win-win profitable financial scam for the clients. Cleverly, the head of that company, Rick Singer, created one fake college counseling non-profit to allow his deep pocketed customers to mask the potentially embarrassing nature of the payment, while allowing them to report the expense as a write off from their taxes. That information alone would be enough to hook, entertain, and inform the general audience. After all, as taxpayers we partially ended up footing the bill in this scheme. However, as an educator the scandal exposes the much larger issue of meritocracy and how it affects public education and millions of college students as well. 

Although this illegal episode involves only wealthy and privileged characters in elite institutions, it has significant implications for students in public education. Mainly, it forces to reconsider the American notion of a meritocratic system so regularly invoked by politicians . So how important is it for some to enter an elite university? Evidently, it matters a lot. Consider that a successful Ivy League application is not the result of a little effort at application time. It is the culmination of years of hard work. So, after these cheating revelations, the alleged meritocratic system has been exposed as an empty catchphrase, meaningless for those wealthy and entitled who can get away defrauding the system. 

Evidently, these underachieving wealthy students received the best opportunities in private schools and available additional support, while the remarkable students in public schools simply did not. If those extreme differences do not disqualify this meritocratic system, the learning about the effects of inequalities on students will. What about living and studying in poor or violent environments? Some studies have shown that underprivileged students are instinctively aware of these differences and are affected by an unfair and arguably discriminatory system. So, what are the fair parameters for this meritocracy? And ultimately, what are the rewards from complying with the rules? 

Regardless of the relative small scope of the scandalous event, the meritocratic system showed intolerable discriminatory flaws that deserve a serious debate. Indeed, judging by the growing inequalities in the past decades, one can conclude that public education in America has not become the great equalizer it was supposed to be. A revision of this biased practice is long overdue --If a flawed meritocracy is detrimental to achieve societal goals; a corrupt meritocratic system would be devastating. 

The consequences of a corrupted meritocratic system affect not only those who are accepted or rejected unfairly. For instance, witnessing the unfairness has the potential to demoralize and even depress those who had faith in the system. Also, unconscionably, a rigged meritocratic system could become a tool to deceive and control the population. Indeed, it is disturbing to infer that wealthy and unscrupulous cheaters with an inflated sense of entitlement enjoy an undeserved reputation and harvest the privileges and advantages it offers. 

By the same token, it is frightening to realize that these despicable behaviors and unethical lessons learned by these young people had been taught in words and deeds by their own parents. For these teenagers, these appalling life lessons are clear and certain; they are rules to live by. What makes it even more troubling is realizing that from this tainted group that has got away cheating the system may emerge business and political leaders. For that reason alone, educators should consider starting debates about the nature and effects of the alleged meritocratic system. Evidently, this event is much more than a trivial scandal. 

As an educator is hard to reconcile that in America some parents paid astronomical figures to dishonestly get their children into an elite college, while millions of college students had to borrow money to pay for their education. An odd and eye-opening finding by the Operation Varsity Blues was that some of these parents spent the same or more money on bribes to get their children in college than on the whole four-year tuition. In America some privileged ones have spent obscene amounts of money to illegally gain access to universities of their choice, while millions of unprivileged honest students have graduated with debt. 

Some years ago the collective college student debt in the US surpassed one trillion dollars. The news raise some eyebrows, but nothing serious has been done about it. In the class of 2018 , 69% of college students graduated owning $29,800 on average, while the parents of 14% took out loans averaging $35,600. Incredibly, 45 million borrowers owe a staggering $1.56 trillion dollars in student loans. Why is this not a scandal?

How can we talk about a meritocracy when public education is not properly funded? Since NCLB was imposed back in 2002, the perception of public education has slowly changed from being a public good to becoming a commodity. In an unprecedented move, federal public funds were taken from public schools and given to individuals or corporations to manage charter schools. Arbitrarily, corporate reformers imported free-market policies and started privatizing schemes to allegedly improve public schools. Districts were told to allocate money to hire consultants to provide professional development in order to improve their scores. At this time, the federal administration has already proposed significant cuts in education and other social programs. 

This neoliberal experiment included unyielding demand for compliance in a competitive system with unwarranted high stakes testing, and arbitrary high standards. In this area, testing and publishing companies started to profit handsomely offering materials, consultants, and training. To complement the reforms, corporate reformers instituted punitive mechanisms that included publishing the yearly scores of students, teachers, and schools. Ultimately, many public schools were unfairly closed and later reopened as charter schools. As feared, rather than tools for improving public education, the neoliberal policies became means of privatization. Unsurprisingly, the new meritocracy in the neoliberal reforms showed a stressful side. 

What is more important? At the moment two law suits have been filed by parents and students. Andrew Lelling, U.S. attorney explains that “This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions to the steady application of wealth combined with fraud.” I agree with Mr. Lelling. Good luck to them!

However, it seems to me that despite Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities book describing how disparities in funding schools have affected minority students for decades; or Noam Chomsky denouncing the attacks on public education and teachers; or Diane Ravitch’s efforts to expose the manipulations of the reforms among many others, public school educators have been deceived by the corporate reformers so effectively that we have not been able to question the neoliberal mantra of an arguably false meritocracy. 

In closing:
I feel sad for those honest and deserving students who despite doing everything right saw their place taken in a rigged game, and for those taken their places. Everybody lost!

I feel appalled seeing the disparities between the privileged few who were given every advantage in life, and dishonestly snatched an unearned place in college; and for the millions of college graduates who played by the rules and even incur in debt to pursue higher education. 

I fear for a society whose elite universities enable the privileged and corrupt to snatch some of the few places that may have been awarded to more qualified and worthy candidates.

And I hope that public school educators and stakeholders take this opportunity to question a system that promotes corruption and abuse from the powerful few at the expense of the rest. 

Who wins, who loses, who cares?

In solidarity,
Sergio Flores, BAT Board of Directors

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Pam Harbin Wants to Go From Pittsburgh School Board Watchdog to School Board Member by Steven Singer

My friend Pam Harbin is trying to undergo a startling metamorphosis.

She wants to transform from an education activist into a Pittsburgh School Director.

Now that Board President Lynda Wrenn is stepping down after 4 years, city voters in District 4 will have to decide whether Harbin can make the change. The election is on May 21.

Residents in parts of Squirrel Hill, Point Breeze, Shadyside and North Oakland already know Harbin as a fierce warrior for children’s civil rights, the plight of disabled kids and authentic public schools.
I’ve known Pam, personally, for years in my own role as an education activist. Though I don’t live in the city, I’ve participated in numerous collective actions to fight for the schools all our children deserve. And right beside me in every case – often in front of me – was Pam.

I may not live in the district, but I wish I could vote for her. Harbin is an amazing leader with boundless energy, piercing intelligence, a deep knowledge of education policy, an advanced degree in finance and marketing, and an impressive track record of education justice achievements.
“I am deeply concerned for our system of public education,” she says. “The status quo isn’t working for all children. Thankfully, there are many people here in Pittsburgh and across the country who are fighting for investment in, and transformation of, our public schools. Unfortunately, their efforts are hindered by the well-funded organizations who fight for public school disinvestment, privatization, and for the elimination of teachers’ right to unionize.”

For the past 12 years, Harbin has been at the forefront of every major battle for the future of Pittsburgh’s public schools and the rights of its students.
Harbin was instrumental in pushing city school board directors to enact a suspension ban from Pk-2nd grade for minor non-violent conduct. She successfully fought to stop the district from implementing a physical restraint protocol that wasn’t trauma informed. She successfully fought against a policy that would have allowed school police officers to carry guns. She supported a successful Sanctuary Schools Policy for immigrant students. She also supported changes to the districts policies that would better welcome and include Pittsburgh’s LGBTQ students, including a change that allows students to use the bathroom that best fits their own gender identity.
Harbin and her coalition of local activists even made national news when they stopped the district from contracting with Teach for America, stopped the closing of 10 schools (after 23 were previously closed), pushed the board to hire a new Superintendent using an inclusive process that relied heavily on community input, and led the fight for a Community School Policy and the creation of 8 Community Schools.
Harbin has two challengers in the election: Anna Batista, a corporate consultant at Highstreet Consulting and Ashley Priore, a 19-year-old first year student at the University of Pittsburgh studying Business and English, who started a successful after school chess program for girls.
But despite facing a crowded field, Harbin has earned every organizational endorsement she has sought thus far, including the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, the Young Democrats of Allegheny County, the Stonewall Democrats and the Network for Public Education—an organization that frequently reposts my own writing as an education blogger and which is on the frontlines of education justice nationwide.


Harbin is one of the most experienced education leaders ever to run for school board in the city. She co-founded the Education Rights Network (ERN), a parent-led organization working for fully resourced, inclusive and quality education for students throughout Pennsylvania. The ERN is part of One Pennsylvania, an organization that unites low income and working class activists to tackle the fundamental economic justice and political problems of local communities.
“Our members are workers, students, parents, seniors, people with disabilities, and retirees who are excited to learn, collaborate, and build power,” she says. “We follow the money, confront the power, and make the change.”

ERN is a member of Great Public Schools Pittsburgh, a coalition of community, faith, and labor organizations working together to create sustainable public schools in Pittsburgh—an alliance which Harbin also helped to found in 2013. Great Public Schools is affiliated on the national level with the Journey for Justice Alliance, the Dignity in Schools Campaign, and the Alliance to Reclaim our Schools.
Harbin is also a member and past Co-Chair of the Pittsburgh Local Task Force on the Right to Education (LTF), a parent-majority organization that works with administrators of Pittsburgh Public Schools and community agencies to improve services for students with disabilities.
And she serves on the board of directors and was past President of Evolve Coaching(formerly Arts for Autism Foundation of Pittsburgh), supporting individuals with disabilities and their communities through education, employment, and the arts.
No one else in the race—and maybe in the whole city—has a resume like Harbin’s.
Harbin believes her years of leadership for and service to Pittsburgh students and families have provided her with the needed foundation for a transition from community leader to school board member. She has attended or streamed more than 2,000 hours of school board meetings. She has served on Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) district-wide advisory committees, including the Community Schools Steering Committee, Envisioning Educational Excellence Advisory Committee, Parental Involvement Policy Committee, Excellence for All Steering Committee, and the Special Education Delivery Model Advisory Committee. And through these many committees and organizations Harbin has helped more than 100 individual families secure an IEP or a 504 plan for their children—in part because she understands better than most the byzantine world of public school special education services.
No one is better suited to this position than Harbin. I literally wish we could clone her and have her fill every vacancy on the board. She is that qualified, that experienced, and that effective.
If this sounds a bit like a love letter, it kind of is.

Screen Shot 2019-03-12 at 4.23.29 PM
I have many fond memories of fighting the power alongside Pam Harbin. I remember organizing events through Yinzercation with Pam, even canvasing local candidates door-to-door with her and my (then) 9-year-old daughter. No matter what, you could always count on Pam to be there for children.
“When our public schools are strong, our children and community thrive,” she says. “We have many great Pittsburgh Public Schools, teachers, and programs. But, in each school, there are children who can’t excel because their individual needs have not been met. We must do better.”

“We must remove the barriers that keep all of our children from fulfilling their dreams. This requires transformational, sustainable change in policy and practice at the local, state, and national level.”

If anyone can make that change happen, it’s Harbin. As someone who has a degree in finance, who is an experienced negotiator and a proven coalition builder, she is uniquely qualified to do so from within the board as she has been successful doing so from outside of it.

She has an ambitious set of goals and priorities if elected:

-Strengthening relationships between all stake-holders with an emphasis on child wellness.

-Defining success beyond standardized test scores to include authentic education practices, addressing trauma, disengagement, hunger, the quality of school food programs, the condition of our buildings and bathrooms, and children’s need for exercise and play.

-Achieving smaller class sizes and a smaller ratio of kids to adults in each building with more teachers, counselors, social workers, paraprofessionals, nurses, librarians, and other staff that keeps the building functioning at its best.

-Restoring funding to art, music, physical education, and other programming that keep kids wanting to come to school.

-Stopping criminalization and over-policing of students, and stopping the use of ineffective punishments that keep children away from their learning and put them on the track to drop out, to jail, and to poverty.

-Intentionally recruiting, retaining, and supporting educators of color and those who identify as LGBTQ.

-Working to make teacher mentoring, new teacher induction, and professional development better to make the very best use of teachers’ time and address key gaps in preparation to teach the wide spectrum of students in the district.

-Making teacher evaluation fair and consistent, not based solely on test scores or value added models.

-Ensuring teachers (and all school staff) are well paid, treated fairly, and valued for the critical work they do for children every day.

-Protecting collective bargaining rights so teachers (and all staff) have a voice to improve their schools – because teaching conditions are students’ learning conditions.

-Investing in the proven Community Schools model and work collaboratively with community partners to bring resources to each school.

-Working at the state level to force our legislators to finally provide adequate, equitable, and sustainable funding for public education and stop efforts to dismantle public education through vouchers and other privatization schemes.

-Building coalitions to improve the flawed state Charter School Law – Charter Schools must have more accountability for the delivery of education to all students, including disabled children, English Language Learners, and kids who are homeless or who are in foster care.

angel and pam

I could literally go on about Pam for another 10,000 words. Easy.

But let me close with this.

Harbin began her journey as an education leader when she started advocating for her own children at their first elementary school—Liberty elementary in the Shadyside neighborhood of Pittsburgh. She found that she could make a difference for a few children at a time by throwing herself into volunteer work at the school.

But then she realized that if she wanted to make a difference for more than just a few children that she needed to work with others. Indeed, to do this work effectively Pam has had to work with people of different backgrounds, races, opinions and ideologies. She has had to listen to others, to compromise, to build bridges, and to prioritize common goals in each of her coalitions. In short, she gets things done.

And she’s been doing that for more than a dozen years.

Not because she has no choice. Not because anyone is paying her to do so. Not because doing so is bringing her any riches or fame.

But because it has been the right thing to do.

And that’s the best endorsement I can imagine.

NOTE: Special thanks to Professor Kathleen M. Newman who helped edit this article.

Click HERE to join Pam’s campaign!

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

Who’s Afraid of Public Schools? by Steven Singer

Public schools are the bogeymen of American life.
We so often hear the bedtime story of “Failing Schools” that it’s no wonder some folks will do anything to ensure their kids get in elsewhere.
And let’s be honest. It’s the same impulse behind the latest college admissions cheating scandal.
A group of wealthy – though not too wealthy – parents thought their children should be able to enroll in the most prestigious schools.
So they bribed college admissions officers, cheated on standardized tests or paid coaches or other officials to accept their children as college athletes even if their kids had never played the sport.
We see the same kind of thing everyday in public schools – a confederacy of white parents terrified that their kids might have to go to class with black kids. So they dip into their stock portfolios to pay for enrollment at a private or parochial school.
Or they take advantage of a tax scholarship or school voucher to avoid an institution with low test scores by enrolling in one where students don’t have to take the tests at all.
Or they cross their fingers and enter their kid in a lottery to a charter school praying their precious progeny will escape the horrors of being treated just like everyone else’s kids.
And they call it a meritocracy!
What a joke!
They pretend that their children have earned special treatment.
No child deserves favoritism – paradoxically –  because all children do!
There are really two important but related points here:

2)  Children who come from wealthy families (and or from privileged social circumstances) don’t do anything to distinguish themselves from the underprivileged.
But these nouveau riche parents tried to bribe the way forward for their kids anyway even though to do so they had to launder the money through a fake “charity.” They didn’t care that doing so would earn them a tax deduction and thus result in even less money for the underprivileged. They didn’t care about the underlying inequalities in the system. No. They only wanted their children to remain in the class of America’s chosen few.
And the best way to do that is with cold, hard cash.
America doesn’t run on Dunkin. It runs on greenbacks. Dinero. Swag. Bling. The prosperity doctrine made physical, quantifiable and mean.
No one really denies that there are two Americas anymore. We just lie to ourselves about how you get placed in one or the other.
And that lie is called excellence, quality, worth – the ultimate in class war gaslighting.
It’s a deception that this scandal has shattered to pieces.
The privileged don’t earn their privilege. It’s not something they possess on the basis of intelligence or hard work shown through test scores. They don’t have it because of drive, determination or grit – once again shown through test scores. They have it based on wealth – the kind of wealth that buys time and resources to either pass the tests or bribe the gatekeepers to change the scores.
Think about it.
George W. Bush got into Yale and Harvard and graduated with a 2.35 GPA. Why? Not because he had the grades and demonstrated his worth. He was a legacy. Like at least one third of all admissions to Ivy League schools, he got in purely because he had family who graduated from there.
You think Donald Trump threatened the College Board not to release his grades because they were all A’s!?
According to one account, his scores were merely “respectable.” Yet he still dropped out of the prestigious Fordham University and transferred to the University of Pennsylvania after two years based on family connections and the reputation of his father, Fred Trump, one of the wealthiest businessmen in New York at the time.
Moreover, his kids, Don Jr. and Ivanka, were both enrolled at Penn around the same time as their father made hefty contributions. They began classes in 1996 and 2000, respectively, just as the university and its private Manhattan clubhouse received more than $1.4 million in pledged donations from Trump, the school newspaper reported.

This is not merit. This has nothing to do with what these people deserve. It is money – a pure transaction, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.
The only thing that separates what the Trumps and the Bushes did with this latest scandal – the so-called Operation Varsity Blues – is the amount of wealth involved.
If you’re super rich, you can get away with it. If you’re just rich, you’d better not get caught.
And if you’re poor or middle class, you’d better stay in your lane.
But there shouldn’t be any lanes on this highway. Or at least they should only be in place to maximize fairness and student success.
We sneer at the idea of Affirmative Action but only because it’s directed at people of color. No one says anything about the real Affirmative Action that’s been in place since before our country even began – the system of reciprocity and privilege keeping wealthy white families in positions of power like Lords and Ladies while the rest of us serfs scramble for their leavings.
All children deserve the same opportunities to succeed. All children deserve the chance to get an excellent education. All children should attend a first class school filled with highly educated and experienced teachers who can draw on plenty of resources, wide curriculum, tutoring, counseling and support.
And the only way we’ll ever achieve that is through a robust system of public schools.
I’m not saying they’re perfect. In many neighborhoods, they’ve been sabotaged and surgically dismantled, but that’s a problem with an easy solution. Invest in public schools!
Because the stated purpose of public education, the reason it exists at all, is equity.
The alternatives – private and charter schools – are essentially unequal.  That’s their raison d’ĂȘtre – to create a market that justifies their existence.
In order for charter and private schools to be a thing, there must be schools that don’t otherwise meet students’ needs. There must be an unreasonable demand that schools indoctrinate students into parents’ religious beliefs. There must be schools that aren’t as well funded or that have to meet ridiculous federal and state mandates.
The result is a two-tiered system. Schools for the haves and for the have-nots.
It’s an apparatus that perverts the public to make room for the private.
In the public system, students are segregated into communities based on race and class and then their community schools are funded based on what their parents can afford. The rich shower their children with the best of everything. The poor do what they can.
Then the federal government pretends to hold everyone “accountable” by forcing students to take standardized tests that merely recreate the economic and racial disparities already present in their districts and neighborhoods. In turn, this provides the justification for charter and voucher schools that further erode public school budgets and increases the downward spiral of disinvestment.

Meanwhile, few notice how the equity built into authentic public schools gets left behind by those enrolling in privatized alternatives. No more open meetings. No more elected school boards. No more public comment or even a voice in how the money is spent.
So long as there are two Americas, the fear of being in the wrong one will motivate the privileged to cheat and steal their way to the top. They will horde resources and wealth for themselves and their children while denying it to others.
It is a self-perpetuating system – a loop that we’re all caught in.
We must break the chain. We must recognize our common humanity and stop the zero sum game.
And perhaps the best way to begin is by supporting authentic public schools and not privatization.
We have been taught to fear public education, because it is really our only hope.

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!