In 1948, sociologist Robert K.Merton coined the phrase “Self-Fulfilling Prophecy.”
“The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the original false conception come ‘true.’ The specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning,” Merton wrote.
A database engineer friend helped me realize this phrase described the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in education reform during a discussion of the information I’d received under a Freedom of Information Act request regarding the foundation’s $5 million grant to the city of Hartford last December.
Here’s how it works: Mr. and Mrs. Gates have a dangerous combination of billions of dollars and strong ideas about how to reform public schools, despite having no background in education and sending their own children to private school. Their foundation commissions research to prove their ideas are correct. Based on research the Gates Foundation pays for, it makes grants to implement their ideas. In the grant documentation, the Foundation specifies: “The Compact City Partner . . . agree(s) to participate in research and information gathering efforts with the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington, which is currently engaged with the foundation to support the project.”
What the Gates Foundation means by “engaged with” is “funded by.” The CRPE also receives funds from the usual pro-charter school names, i.e. The Broad Foundation, the Walton Foundation, and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Interestingly, it also receives funds from the U.S. Department of Education.
Lo and behold, CPRE produces “research” that supports the claims and beliefs of the Foundation. A prime example: the PR piece produced by Hartford Public Schools and posted online by Achieve Hartford in April: entitled, “Improving Student Outcomes and Opportunities in Hartford Public Schools.”
The “research” came with a warning: “This piece, however, is limited in that it cannot directly attribute any of the changes to any particular reform initiative. A more-detailed longitudinal analysis of progress made before and after the district initiated its reforms, and controlling for important factors, would be needed to more precisely and confidently attribute the changes to specific initiatives. Moreover, this piece has not yet undergone a thorough peer review.”
Yet armed with this non-peer reviewed data to back up their initial faulty assumptions, the Gates Foundation and its partners continue the reign of error.
Witness how Hartford Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto used the “facts” in this non-peer reviewed research report to call for another Achievement First charter school in Hartford.
Perhaps that’s because the Gates grant calls for “AF, HPS and JA to work together” to advocate for “equitable state funding” and “access to facilities” for public charter schools. In fact, the grant proposal even mentions “the district’s close relationship with state educational efforts.” That wouldn’t have anything to do with Achievement First’s relationship with Stefan Pryor, state Commissioner of Education and co-founder of the Amistad Academy, would it? It couldn’t possibly.
Another component of the grant is for the expansion of Achievement First’s Residency Program, with the aim of allowing for “the direct and explicit transfer of best practices” from the “high performing” charter to the “traditional district context.”
But since the grant was awarded, we’ve learned a bit more about Achievement First’s high performing methods and best practices. Thanks to the New Haven Independent, we know that Amistad’s claim of 100 percent college acceptance actually means a 43 percent attrition rate from the students who started in 9th grade four years earlier.
We’ve also learned that Achievement First is indisputably ranked first in Connecticut by a huge margin in the suspension students of kindergarten age.
Amy Burns, a licensed professional counselor specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of children, adolescents, and families was skeptical of the Achievement First approach.
“As a general rule, we never put a child in time-out longer than about 1 minute per year of age, so these 90-minute or more time outs for kids would not be an effective punishment, especially with younger children. Developmentally speaking, if a kindergartner is put in this ‘break room’ all day, it is unlikely that they will remember what they did to get put in time out by the end of the punishment. It would be much more effective to use 5 minutes of isolation, as the child will not be reinforcing the undesired behavior,” Burns said. “What works even better than punishing inappropriate behaviors is rewarding positive behaviors. Using something like a token economy punctuated by appropriate use of time out will produce much better results than sending these kids away for the day.”
But even more disturbing to this mom of a young adult who went through school with an IEP was the news of how Achievement First “close alliance” with Teach for America, whose “corps members and alumni play an integral role at Achievement First.” Whereas, district teachers must be certified, TFA corps members are considered too “elite for such niceties. They undergo a mere five weeks of training at TFA’s Summer Institute. Clearly, dealing with special education issues and the complexities of complying with the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) is not adequately addressed during that training.
As school counselor Christina Ketchem pointed out: “Most of the time, special needs kids struggle to fit in anyway, so excluding them or singling them out publicly will only exacerbate any existing issues.” Burns called the white shirt shaming “wildly inappropriate” and wrote that “most of these children who have mental illness already feel isolated and a target of their peers; this is a modernization of the ‘dunce cap’ of education of old, and should be stopped immediately.”
Alfie Kohn, a leading author and lecturer on education, is even more blunt.
“Anyone who punishes children by suspending them repeatedly, confining them, or stigmatizing and publicly humiliating them is either deeply ignorant about how to help kids or is more concerned with the adults’ convenience than with doing what’s in the best interest of the students. Or I suppose there’s a third possibility, which is that the school deliberately mistreats challenging kids in the hope that they’ll give up and withdraw, thereby allowing the school to weed out students with special needs so Achievement First can boast about its results. If the Gates Foundation is funding schools that engage in practices like this, that’s a strong argument for us to resist its involvement in education.”
A spokesperson for Hartford Public Schools responded to questions about the suspension rates Friday: “Hartford Public Schools doesn’t accept high suspension rates among elementary school students and has been working with Achievement First to assertively address the problem.” The Gates Foundation opted not to comment for this op-ed.
At next Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting in Hartford, there will be a second reading of a plan to create another Achievement First school in the city for 2014-15 — part of the Gates Foundation plan. Given what we have learned about Achievement First’s methods and “success,” is this really the most effective way to spend our education tax dollars, when teachers in the district schools are paying for their own photocopy paper and don’t have enough books?
Sarah Darer Littman is an award-winning columnist and novelist of books for teens. Long before the financial meltdown, she worked as a securities analyst and earned her MBA in Finance from the Stern School at NYU.
CLARIFICATION: The report entitled “Improving Student Outcomes and Opportunities in Hartford Public Schools” was produced by the Hartford Public Schools, but was posted publicly on the Internet by AchievementFirst.