Riding the 'Turnaround' Merry-Go-Round in the Continuing Assault on Philadelphia Public Schools: Part II

by Ken Derstine

April 5, 2016 


Part I of this series
detailed how Mastery Charter is using the hostile takeover methods of the corporate world to takeover more Philadelphia Public Schools each year. But education deals with relationships between human beings, not the industrial products and natural resources of the corporate world. Thus, these hostile takeovers aggravate historic class and ethnic tensions (watch the video). Philadelphia schools have struggled for years with underfunding at the state level; now charters bring the added disparity in funding between public schools and charters within Philadelphia. Philadelphia currently has 83 charters. Other charter companies, including KIPP (four schools), ASPIRA (six schools), and Universal (seven schools) are looking to expand their enrollment, but Mastery increasingly dominates the charter sector in Philadelphia. Also, with many independent charters, Philadelphia is ranked third in the nation for the number of students enrolled in charter schools with currently roughly 70,000 of Philadelphia’s approximately 200,000 students being enrolled in charters.

Mastery Charter Schools

Mastery currently manages nine elementary schools, eight middle/high schools in Philadelphia, and six schools (five elementary and one high school) in Camden, New Jersey, in total, serving over 12,000 students. In its five-year budget plan, announced March 24th, at the School Reform Commission (SRC) meeting, the District anticipates an additional enrollment of 10,000 more charter students in the next five years. Adding to the District's problems, on February 16, 2016, and upheld April 4, 2016 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the SRC had overstepped its authority in imposing enrollment caps on charters. That will probably result in an increase in charter enrollment in existing charter schools. The SRC also announced on March 24th its intention to add 10,000 more charter students in the next five years and to close at least three public schools each year beginning in 2018. 

Students who remain with Mastery, having survived its high attrition rates, seem to be enthusiastic about their schools. At the March 17th School Reform Commission (SRC) meeting where Mastery supporters packed the meeting, discussed in Part I of this article, students lined up to praise their Mastery schools. At times, the meeting felt more like a pep rally for Mastery. The underside of this enthusiasm, however, was the students who spoke of their former public schools, and particularly their former public school teachers, as “the Other” to be disdained. Not only does this ignore that the teachers in public schools, for the most part, come from the same socio-economic status as Mastery teachers and attend the same colleges and universities (in other words the teachers are interchangeable between public and charter schools), but it ignores that the public schools have been operating for the last fifteen years (since before many of these students were born) in a starve-the-public-schools, feed-the-charters environment. Are such displays exploiting students to promote the Mastery brand over public schools?  Is this the purpose of education?

 As the eighteen-year-old Morehouse College student Martin Luther King said in a college newspaper essay “The Purpose of Education”,

Education must also train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking. To think incisively and to think for one's self is very difficult. We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda. At this point, I often wonder whether or not education is fulfilling its purpose. A great majority of the so-called educated people do not think logically and scientifically. Even the press, the classroom, the platform, and the pulpit in many instances do not give us objective and unbiased truths. To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.

On March 27, 2016, the Christian Science Monitor published a laudatory cover story profiling Mastery CEO Scott Gordon entitled Education’s Mr. Fix-It. It was republished from a report titled The end of “no excuses” education reform? in the Hechinger Report, a publication heavily funded by The Gates Foundation and other corporate education reformer organizations. In the article, Scott Gordon shows that Mastery charter schools in Philadelphia are playing a prominent national role in the experiment that is corporate education reform.

The Gates Foundation is currently working to install the Mastery Teacher Effectiveness Program in school districts across the country. This linked 2011 article says, “The Gates Foundation has invested in Mastery to share its teacher development and coaching model. Mastery and the Gates Foundation share the goal of increasing the number of high quality teachers and schools both in Philadelphia and nationwide.” Bill Gates has been involved behind the scenes in promoting his agenda in Philadelphia.

An article in the Philadelphia Public School Notebook dated August 10, 2012, Mastery poised to expand its influence around teacher coaching, describes a Mastery grant application to do staff development in Philadelphia public schools to train teachers how to implement the Common Core. A resolution accepting $300,000 from Mastery for a teacher coaching program was adopted by the SRC on August 20, 2015.  This program has Mastery implementing/coaching/leading staff development with instructors who may or may not be certified, who are recently out of college, and may be Teach for America teacher temps; instructing veteran public school teachers to train them in Mastery’s “superior” teaching methods 

The Unequal Funding of Public vs. Charter Schools

The Christian Science Monitor/Hechinger Report article praises the “innovation” of Mastery Charter, but it ignores the lack of an even playing field. Ironically, these innovations are strategies that experienced public school educators have been recommending for decades. Because of additional funding from various corporate education reform sponsors, Mastery is able to have lower class sizes, a team of counselors and social workers in each of its schools, and well-resourced classrooms because they have funding from various corporate education reform funders due to neo-liberal government policies. Public schools, on the other hand, have part-time nurses, part-time or no counselor, out-of-date textbooks, higher teacher vacancies (more than 165 at the end of March), and few substitutes. Teachers continue to buy supplies and cartons of paper out of their own pockets.

Note the role of the local corporate education reform organization, Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP), whose Executive Director, Mark Gleason, continually dismisses the lack of funding for the problems in the public schools. He obviously does not believe lack of funding should be accepted in charter schools if you look at PSP’s record in channeling corporate and philanthropic money to Philadelphia’s charter schools. Some examples:

Philadelphia School Partnership awards $3 million in grants to Mastery, American Paradigm – Philadelphia Newsworks – June 18, 2014

A $35 million attempt to add more charter schools | Philadelphia Inquirer – February 6, 2015 

Transforming a struggling public high school serving 1,100 students in a neighborhood of North Philadelphia | Philadelphia School Partnership

Mastery gets $9.6 million federal grant | Philadelphia Newsworks – October 14, 2015 

Mastery CEO talks about expansion plan and Renaissance turnarounds | Philadelphia Notebook – October 15, 2015

Five new charter schools coming to Philadelphia with $10.5 million PSP grant | Philly Voice – December 3, 2015

Who Is Behind the Philadelphia School Partnership? | Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools – December 9, 2015

And many more.

In the article How to Destroy a Public-School System in the September 24, 2014 The Nation, Daniel Denvir, a former columnist at the Philadelphia City Paper, said this,

But Mastery has its critics, who accuse the network of practicing rote teach-to-the-test instruction and burning through young teachers. Even Michael Masch, the school district’s former chief financial officer and a progressive fan of Mastery’s work, makes a point of noting that the charter network engages in prodigious outside fundraising. Mastery is “not doing more with less,” Masch says. “They’re doing more with more.”

In fact, the basic structure of school financing in Philadelphia is rigged to benefit these privately managed companies. Public-school money follows students when they move to charter schools, but the public schools’ costs do not fall by the same amount. For example, if 100 students leave a district-run school at a cost of $8,596 per head (the district’s per-pupil expenditure minus certain administrative costs), that school’s cost for paying teachers, staff and building expenses doesn’t actually decline by that amount. It has been estimated that partly because of these costs, each student who enrolls in a charter school costs the district as much as $7,000.

Part III will look at the ‘no excuses’ education philosophy that has dominated Philadelphia charters up until now.

Also see:

National Education Policy Center Releases Profound Analysis of Portfolio School Reform
Jan Resseger - April 5, 2016 

How The Charter Cheerleading Industry Is Abetting The Destruction Of Public Schools | Jersey Jazzman - July 10, 2016

State rules: no ethics violation for SRC's Simms
Philadelphia Inquirer - November 10, 2016

Has Mastery lost its mojo? (The quest to fix Philly's biggest charter network)
Newsworks -November 14, 2016

Mastery Charter Schools agrees to pay $2000 to settle city ethics complaint
Philadelphia Inquirer - November 18, 2016


Also see:

Riding the ‘turnaround’ merry-go-round in the continuing assault on Philadelphia public schools ­– Part I
The Battle for Wister; The SRC’s Projected Five-year Plan

Riding the ‘Turnaround’ Merry-Go-Round in the Continuing Assault on Philadelphia Public Schools: 
Part III
The 'No Excuses' Education Philosopy; 'No Excuses' in Philadelphia Charters; Origins of 'No Excuses' Schooling

Riding the 'Turnaround' Merry-Go-Round in the Continuing Assault on Philadelphia Public Schools - Part IV
Crossing the Rubicon; The Latest Spin of the Turnaround Merry-Go-Round in Philadelphia Schools; SRC Commissioner Green Makes His Move; The Broad Foundation and Boston Consulting Group's Privatization Plan is on Schedule; The Privatization Rollout in the Last Two Years