Sunday, September 28, 2014


How to Spot a Fake Grassroots Education ®eform Group

by Daniel Katz, Ph.D., from his blog |

September 5, 2014 · 12:12 pm   ::  One problem with today’s education reform environment is that a number of groups exist that call themselves “grassroots” organizations, but which have expanded rapidly because of large infusions of cash from corporations and foundations invested in pushing charter schools, mass high stakes testing, data mining students and the Common Core standards.  These groups do not exist to represent the organically derived priorities and shared interests of students, teachers and parents; they exist to put a more credible face on the priorities and shared interests of a very narrow but astonishingly influential set of repeating characters.  Take Educators 4 Excellence as an example.  On their website, they tout that they began as “two teachers” and wanted to give teachers a voice in a system that imposed changes from the top down, and now they are growing into 10 of 1000s of teachers in multiple states. What don’t they mention?  That they are funded by The Gates Foundation, which is not really a surprise because a) Gates has been funding a lot of similar efforts and b) their “pledge” includes evaluating teachers by value-added testing models (something Gates really, really likes) and supporting “choice” which is reform jargon for charter schools (something hedge fund managers really, REALLY like).  The group was central in the not-entirely-successful #supportthecore  social media campaign, and former Connecticut legislator Jonathan Pelto writes here about more of their rather miraculous funding.

When I was in high school, soap actor Peter Bergman did television ads for Vicks cough syrup with the tag line “I’m not a doctor but I play one on TV.”  At least he was upfront about it.

A few days back, The Washington Post ran a story about the founding of “Education Post” which is claiming to be a new source of information about topics in education that will avoid the supposed rancor in current public conversations.  To her credit, reporter Lyndsey Layton did report that it is funded by the Broad Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Walton Family Foundation and is headed by the former communications director for Arne Duncan, so we have some heads up as to how that “reporting” on “what works” will tilt.

Genuine grassroots organizations cannot just pop up out of nowhere, grow by 1000s of members practically overnight, afford slick web designs, afford Manhattan rent and big staffs.  But without knowing what to look for it can be difficult for the casual observer, or even a working teacher, to spot the signs of a group that is more AstroTurf than grassroots.  I would like to offer the following guide as assistance, and I have chosen, not entirely randomly, Students for Education Reform.  Sounds like a great thing, doesn’t it?  Students?  Education reform?  Who wouldn’t want to support that?

From the Students for Education Reform webpage:

What started as two students working for educational justice in their own communities eventually grew from one college campus to twenty, and from twenty to over 140 undergraduate chapters at two- and four-year colleges in over 30 states. Our founders launched Students for Education Reform as college freshmen, each bringing a different perspective to the fight for educational equity: Alexis Morin is a lifelong public school student and was a local school board member in her Massachusetts district, and Catharine Bellinger is an aspiring teacher from Washington, DC. Together, Alexis and Catharine created a platform for college students to share their stories on one campus; by working with peers across the country, they grew SFER nationally during their sophomore and junior years. SFER’s members now represent the diversity of the American K-12 education system: the vast majority of us attended local district schools, while many others attended schools of choice – charter schools, parochial schools, and private schools. Together, we know what’s true, and what’s possible.

Ms. Morin and Ms. Bellinger started SFER in 2009 while freshmen at Princeton, and it has grown to 136 chapters in 33 states.  According to this blurb in Forbes, both of them had to put off their studies for a year to assist with the astonishingly paced growth of the group.  Which brings me to my first clue for spotting fake grassroots groups:

Growth at a pace that only a corporation’s monetary resources could manage.  Perhaps SFER’s founders had sincere interests in growing a real movement that included a genuine array of student voices (although the prominent mention of KIPP charter schools and North Star charter in this interview makes me doubt they had any vision except current corporate backed reforms in mind), but their growth could not have happened this rapidly without a serious infusion of assistance from outside.  That assistance, of course, came in the form of cash and the expectation that such cash would influence the values of the activism.

And Students for Education Reform definitely have been given cash.  This is evident in their web design which is a slick and well-executed page oddly reminiscent of the “Educators 4 Excellence” site.  SFER also has a national office in New York City, specifically on West 38th Street in the Garment District and near the Empire State Building and Pennsylvania Station.  While not the priciest office district in Manhattan, rents for office space on this site range from $27 per square foot to over $100.  That’s per month.  I’ll go out on a limb and assume someone is putting up the money for that which brings me to the second clue:

Who is funding the group and for how much?  This is readily known for SFER, thankfully.  According to this article from The Nation, SFER has gotten a hefty infusion of at least some of $1.6 million from Education Reform Now, the non-PAC wing of Democrats for Education Reform, in 2010.  ERN’s 2010 990 IRS form is available for your pleasure here, and the relevant page is 21.  Keep in mind, SFER was barely a year old in 2010, and it was already being infused with cash from Education Reform Now.  Not bad work for a pair of sophomores even if they are in Princeton.

It will help readers to know more about Education Reform Now and the affiliated political action committee, Democrats for Education Reform.  ERN operates as a 501c3 organization, and DFER helps spread campaign cash.  While ERN claims to be non-partisan and DFER claims to be an organization of Democrats, both groups are essentially joined together around the familiar causes of charter school expansion, mass high stakes testing and evaluating teachers based upon controversial and statistically invalid value-added measures of effectiveness.  DFER was founded in part by hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson, and the main purpose of the PAC is to influence Democratic politicians to support charter schools and high stakes testing.  Education Reform Now receives annual donations from the Walton Family Foundation, getting $1.1 million in 2011 and more than $2.8 million in 2013.  DFER takes in a diverse range of donors, all from the privatization end of the reform spectrum. According to this graphic assembled by the Alliance for Quality Education, DFER’s money and political alliances include the Koch brothers, conservative financier Rex Sinquefield, Rupert Murdoch, The Walton Family Foundation, and the American Federation for Children, which is a charter supporting organization.

Suffice to say that when you see Students for Education Reform, you are seeing a group whose existence is at least partially owed to Education Reform Now channeling Walton money into their ledgers.  With ERN’s ties to DFER, you also know that the policies supported by SFER will align very well with the privatization advocates who want to break teacher unions and replace fully public schools with privately managed charters.  SFER has to, or the money will dry up.

With such funds come influential advisers, and for SFER, that is a board of directors that is a made up of some heavy hitting finance and reform personalities.  Which comes to the third clue:

Who is REALLY running the operation?  SFER is upfront about their boards of directors, which boasts some very familiar names and organizations.  Amy Chou is the chief growth officer of the KIPP charter school network.  KIPP, it should be noted, is one of the “miracle” charter chains that claims they have “proven” that high poverty populations can close achievement gaps by doing things their way.  What they don’t mention is how self-selection and high attrition without backfilling vacated seats influences their success rates.  In fact, Bruce Baker of Rutgers University provides a simple chart showing how various “miracle” and some non-miracle charter networks compare in populations relative to fully public schools in NYC:

Click to expand

I don’t mind various ways of doing business, but I really mind being told miracles are happening when the data suggests something much more mundane, and largely unethical.  As an added bonus, one of KIPP’s founders, Mike Feinberg, was asked if his children were going to attend a KIPP school.  His fumbling answer would have been amusing under other circumstances.

Also on the board?  Christy Chin of the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, which is the philanthropy arm of the venture capital firm, Draper Richards.  Adam Cioth, the founder of Rolling Hills Capital and former investment banker at Goldman Sachs.  Justin Cohen, the president of Mass Insight Education which is the education wing of Mass Insight Global Partnerships, a financial industry alliance and lobbying group supporting “market-driven solutions”.  Shavar Jeffries, former mayoral candidate in Newark whose campaign received a huge influx of Wall Street cash in the final weeks. Jon Sackler, who is listed as the President of the Bouncer Foundation, but who is also a player in finance and investment and is a trustee with a major charter school management firm. Chris Stewart is listed as the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum, but he will also be blogging for the recently announced Education Post, funded by the Waltons, Broads and Bloomberg.  The board is rounded out by the Deputy General Council of Unilever and a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, Rebecca Ledley, who is married to ERN and DFER board member Charles Ledley, and who is herself on the board of a charter school management company.

But, you know, what she’s studying in graduate school is MUCH more interesting.

This kind of slight of hand brings up my final clue about a fake grassroots organization and that is:

Do its supposed grassroots members have even a clue what the organization is about?  I have done grassroots politics.  As part of the steering committee that formed the Graduate Employees Union at Michigan State University, I know first hand that real grassroots work is painstaking and slow, requiring a lot of time to meet, debate and educate a population.  Yes, we got help and networking connections from the Michigan Federation of Teachers, but the actual door to door conversations with the 1000s of teaching assistants at the university?  We did that ourselves and aimed to help every potential member of our collective bargaining unit to understand the issues we believed could be solved by forming the union.

While the central office of Students For Education Reform is deeply entrenched in an exact kind of reform that emphasizes charter schools, testing and union busting, it is not clear that all chapter members, the ones called upon to be the public face of SFER at rallies and meetings, know this.  In 2012, SFER mobilized students to take part in a rally demanding that the UFT and city reach an agreement to implement a teacher evaluation system that included controversial value-added measures of teachers using testing data because there was a $300 million dollar implementation grant at stake.  They carried signs emphasizing the money that was at stake, and got people to talk about how important that money would be for city schools.  But one would think that if SFER was really worried about school funding, they’d be far more concerned about what Bruce Baker demonstrates here:  that the NYC school budget is shorted $3.4 BILLION ANNUALLY by Albany.  SFER showed up to protest the UFT’s reticence to accept a deal that included teacher evaluations that do not stand up to ANY scientific scrutiny, but to date, they do not seem to have mobilized any placards to protest what Dr. Baker points out.

Do these “students for education reform” even have the slightest clue what they are protesting?  I doubt it matters to their board of directors who are happy to have a ready to deploy force of good optics for the press, and who are not as honest as a 1986 cough syrup ad:

The good news? We learned something from the #supportthecore day on Twitter.  Genuine grassroots work may not have a Manhattan office.  It may not have a steady flow of cash from the Waltons.  It may not have a slick website and be able to boast 100s of chapter offices in only 4 years.  But it does have an energy that derives from authenticity.  And that has staying power.  The hedge fund managers are treating all of what they want to accomplish as simply an advertising matter, but it is a democracy matter and people will have a say, one way or another.

By the numbers: How to Tell If Your School District Is Infected by The Broad Virus

by Sue Peters, a parent in Seattle Public Schools, an infected district. She is the Founder of the SeattleEducation2011 blog and also Parents Across America, the Centers for Disease Control battling the Broad Epidemic |

19 April 2011

  1. Schools in your district are suddenly closed.

  2. Even top-performing schools, alternative schools, schools for the gifted, are inexplicably and suddenly targeted for closure or mergers.

  3. Repetition of the phrases “the achievement gap” and “closing the achievement gap” in district documents and public statements.

  4. Repeated use of the terms “excellence” and “best practices” and “data-driven decisions.” (Coupled with a noted absence of any of the above.)

  5. The production of “data” that is false or cherry-picked, and then used to justify reforms.

  6. Power is centralized.

  7. Decision-making is top down.

  8. Local autonomy of schools is taken away.

  9. Principals are treated like pawns by the superintendent, relocated, rewarded and punished at will.

  10. Culture of fear of reprisal develops in which teachers, principals, staff, even parents feel afraid to speak up against the policies of the district or the superintendent.

  11. Ballooning of the central office at the same time superintendent makes painful cuts to schools and classrooms.

  12. Sudden increase in number of paid outside consultants.

  13. Increase in the number of public schools turned into privately-run charters.

  14. Weak math text adopted (most likely Everyday Math). Possibly weak language arts too, or Writer’s Workshop. District pushes to standard the curriculum.

  15. Superintendent attempts to sidestep labor laws and union contracts.

  16. Teachers are no longer referred to as people, educators, colleagues, staff, or even “human resources,” but as “human capital.”

  17. A (self-anointed, politically connected) group called NCTQ comes to town a few months before your teachers’ contract is up for negotiation and writes a Mad Libs evaluation of your districts’ teachers (for about $14,000) that reaches the predetermined conclusion that teachers are lazy and need merit pay. ["The (NAME OF CITY) School District has too many (NEGATIVE ADJ) teachers. Therefore they need a new (POSITIVE ADJ.) data-based evaluation system tied to test scores…”]

  18. The district leadership declares that the single most significant problem in the district is suddenly: teachers!

  19. Teachers are no longer expected to be creative, passionate, inspired, but merely “effective.”

  20. Superintendent lays off teachers for questionable reasons.

  21. Excessive amounts of testing introduced and imposed on your kids.

  22. Teach for America, Inc., novices are suddenly brought into the district, despite no shortage of fully qualified teachers.

  23. The district hires a number of “Broad Residents” at about $90,000 apiece, also trained by the Broad Foundation, who are placed in strategically important positions like overseeing the test that is used to evaluate teachers or school report cards. They in turn provide — or fabricate — data that support the superintendent’s ed reform agenda (factual accuracy not required).

  24. Strange data appears that seems to contradict what you know (gut level) to be true about your own district.

  25. There is a strange sense of sabotage going on.

  26. You start to feel you are trapped in the nightmarish Book Five of the Harry Potter series and the evilly vindictive Dolores Umbridge is running your school district. Seek centaurs and Forbidden Forest immediately!

  27. Superintendent behaves as if s/he is beyond reproach.

  28. Superintendent reads Blackberry or sends texts while parents and teachers are giving public testimony at school board meetings, blatantly ignoring public input.

  29. A rash of Astroturf groups appear claiming to represent “the community” or “parents” and all advocate for the exact same corporate ed reforms that your superintendent supports — merit pay, standardized testing, charter schools, alternative credentialing for teachers. Of course, none of these are genuine grassroots community organizations. [see: HOW TO CREATE A FAUX GRASSROOTS ED REFORM ORGANIZATION IN 12 EASY STEPS! Posted by Sue Peters on seattleducation2011|]

  30. Or, existing groups suddenly become fervidly in favor of teacher bashing, merit pay or charter schools. Don’t be surprised to find that these groups may have received grant money from the corporate ed reform foundations like Gates or Broad.

  31. The superintendent receives the highest salary ever paid to a superintendent in your town’s history (plus benefits and car allowance) – possibly more than your mayor or governor — and the community is told “that is the national, competitive rate for a city of this size.”

  32. Your school board starts to show signs of Stockholm Syndrome. They vote in lockstep with the superintendent. Apparently lobotomized by periodic “school board retreat/Broad training” sessions headed by someone from Broad, your school board stops listening to parents and starts to treat them as the enemy. (If you still have a school board, that is — Broad ideally prefers no pesky democratically elected representatives to get in the way of their supts and agendas.)

  33. Superintendent bypasses school board entirely and keeps them out of the loop on significant or all issues.

  34. School board candidates receive unprecedented amounts of campaign money from business interests.

  35. Annual superintendent evaluation is overseen by a fellow named Tom Payzant.

  36. Stand for Children appears in towns and claims to be grassroots. (It is actually based in Portland, Ore., and is funded by the Gates Foundation.) It may invite superintendent to be keynote speaker at a political fundraising event. It will likely lobby your state government for corporate ed reform laws.

  37. Grants appear from the Broad and Gates foundations in support of the superintendent, and her/his “Strategic Plan.”

  38. The Gates Foundation gives your district grants for technical things related to STEM and/or teacher “effectiveness” or studies on charter schools.

  39. Local newspaper fails to report on much of this.

  40. Local newspaper never mentions the words “Broad Foundation.”

  41. Broad and Gates Foundations give money to local public radio stations which in turn become strangely silent about the presence and influence of the Broad and Gates Foundation in your school district.



  • Parents.

  • Blogs.

  • Sharing information.

  • Vote your school board out of office.

  • Vote your mayor out of office if s/he is complicit.

  • Boycott or opt out of tests.

  • Go national and join Parents Across America.

  • Follow the money.

  • Question the data – especially if it produced by someone affiliated with the Broad or Gates Foundations or their favored consultants (McKinsey, Strategies 360, NCTQ, or their own strategically placed Broad Residents).

  • Alert the media again and again (they will ignore you at first).

  • Protest, stage rallies, circulate petitions.

  • Connect and daylight the dots.

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