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Amid financial crisis, Pearson a winner





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Are we in a financial crisis? For the thousands of students who organized a massive walk-out today, yes. But not for a certain sector of contractors who are benefiting from the School Reform Commission’s decisions lately.

The same day that elementary school parents flooded City Council to rally for school funding and a sizeable crowd attended a panel on the destructive impact of high-stakes testing, the SRC on Wednesday approved nearly $1.3 million in contracts related to assessment and accountability, including a million-dollar contract to Pearson for high-stakes teacher and principal evaluations.

It doesn’t matter that educators in New York City are considering ending their Pearson contract for gross incompetence. District officials here have embraced Pearson amid the worst financial crisis in recent memory, lavishing the company in the last month with an $11 million contract for Schoolnet, the poorly used learning management system, and now a new contract for teacher and principal evaluation. 

The funds this time came out of categorical grants intended for specific uses, such as one from the Dell Foundation for "aligning accountability systems." But here's where the concerns lie. Grants from controversial foundations like the Dell Foundation and others drive District priorities and energy away from the classroom and scatter them off chasing the obsessions and fetishes of what many label the corporate education reform movement. 

Though it was not the fault of the current administration, it seemed a perfect juxtaposition that the District announced the $2.5 million repayment of grant funds wasted from the National Science Foundation during the Vallas years.

Race to the Top and Dell Foundation? Winners. National Science Foundation? Ignored. As City University of New York professor Michelle Fine said in the earlier panel on high-stakes testing, districts are now investing enormous amounts in the surveillance of children and teachers and so little in the teaching and learning process.

The contracts follow on the heels of a series of SRC decisions showing a troubling direction for the District. A $15 million contract to outsource a cyber school. New Renaissance charters. The New Teacher Project claims $800,000 in federal grant money that could have gone toward counselors and lower class size.

When I’ve raised questions in the past, I’ve often gotten the reaction: We have a $304 million problem and you’re worried about a measly million?

Well, I don’t count to $304 million. When you go after our children’s counselors, teachers, librarians, sports, extracurriculars, and the people who make our schools function, like our assistant principals and secretaries, I’m not counting to $304 million. I count to $4 million for librarians. I count to $7 million for instrumental music, $7 million for sports, $38 million for counselors.

Any dime that’s not going toward those fundamentals needs a better explanation than it’s a drop in the bucket. Librarians are a drop in the bucket. Music and Public League sports are a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of joy and purpose they bring to children’s school lives.

Pearson’s high-stakes teacher evaluations? Not so much.

One small spot of transparency glimmers. Parents United for Public Education requested the list of annual contracts by vendor and amount over $50,000. The District informed us this week that they will publish the list on their website by Monday.

One of the most important things I’ve learned from the years spent looking at the District is that even in the worst crises, we still have important and conscientious choices to make every single day. When there’s money in the pot, we can afford to make a few mistakes here and there, pacify this political operative, or cater to some foundation’s pet project and interest. But when we’re in deep financial crisis, we can’t afford those games. Every dollar driving in and out either goes toward the classroom and toward improving the quality of teaching and learning or it doesn’t.

The District’s attention to this issue, though, feels less and less like ineptitude. Instead, it's becoming more clear that we're taking purposeful and deliberate steps away from the essence of teaching and learning and toward the outer fringes of the homegenized, nationalized fads of the corporate education reform movement.

What New York City rejects, Philadelphia picks up. It's called "the market" -- and education is the biggest one out there.

Helen Gym is co-founder of Parents United for Public Education, an editor at "Rethinking Schools," and a contributor to and former board member of the Notebook.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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