No-Excuse Charter Schools and Racism

I read two interesting articles this weekend that seem to speak volumes about the inherently flawed notion that charter schools are the panacea for students, overwhelmingly of color, living in urban areas.  The first is Sarah Carr’s article in The Atlantic entitled “How Strict is too Strict? The backlash against no-excuses discipline in high school.”  The second is Antonia Darder’s op-ed published on the Truthout website entitled “Racism and the Charter School Movement: Unveiling the Myths.”

Carr’s article sheds light on the discipline policies associated with the no-excuses charter schools that are increasingly becoming the norm within inner cities across the U.S.  Her examination of some of the charter schools in New Orleans, a city that has served as the vanguard for other urban cities, raises some interesting points.

When the KIPP franchise opened their Renaissance High School in 2010, many parents were eager to enroll their children.  Far from being concerned about the myriad of rules outlined for the no-excuses charter school, parents cheered.  Carr reported that after one administrator “noted that the Renaissance staff hadn’t been vigilant enough about preventing the students from rolling up the sleeves of their uniforms, a mother shouted, ‘Get even stricter, Mr. Dassler! Do it!’ Another chimed in, “You have to be hard and strict. You can’t be soft, because you know how these kids are.”

In no-excuse charter schools like KIPP, the rules are numerous.   Rules dictate how students walk, how they talk, how they sit in their desks, how they respond to teachers in the classroom, how they dress (down to the color of the undershirt they were), where they look in the classroom (tracking the teacher or other speaker), and the list goes on and on.  The school environment is so rigid that students often jokingly refer to the KIPP school as the Kids in Prison Program.

While parents may have applauded the strict discipline policies at first, as Carr points out, there is a racialized aspect to the discipline policies within many charter schools:

“…  the zealous disciplinary tactics at the paternalistic charters that are overrepresented in poor urban districts contribute to persistent racial gaps in students’ experience. Starting in preschool, black children are suspended and expelled at far higher rates than white students are, despite little objective evidence that they behave any worse. The discrepancy persists as children get older and the number of overall suspensions rises. In high school, black students are more than three times as likely as white students to get suspended at least once. Untangling causation and correlation is obviously no easy matter, but one statewide study in Texas reported that students suspended or expelled for a “discretionary violation”—having a bad attitude, for example—were nearly three times as likely to come into contact with the juvenile-justice system the following year.”

At the Carver Collegiate charter school in New Orleans, 69% of the students were reported to have been suspended and at the Carver Prep charter school, 61% had been suspended.  Although school administrators explained that 80% of the suspensions were for a single day, several students claimed that they were sent home from school “off the books” so that their disciplinary dismissal  was undocumented.  According to Carr, some charter school operators are attempting to temper their stance on discipline and be more responsive to their students.  However, this may very well simply be a response to the negative press about suspension rates that can impact the public relations campaign engineered to promote charter schools.  And, in fact, the American Psychological Association reported in 2008 that there is no evidence that suspensions and expulsions have any positive impact on student behavior or school safety.

Why, then, do so many parents in inner cities readily embrace the no-excuse behavior policies of charter schools? Carr quotes one New Orleans parent as saying, “The margin for error is much smaller in black communities, especially for black boys.”  The statistics seem to support his assertion.  For example, as one study found, marijuana use is slightly higher among whites than blacks.  However, blacks are four times more likely to be arrested.  Carr cites another reason for parents’ acceptance of strict discipline policies:

“For generations, the New Orleans public schools have graduated countless students straight into low-paying work in the tourism business. With only a few exceptions, the industry’s dishwashing, housekeeping, and other positions are nonunionized and come with little job security. Employees who make even a small misstep can be speedily replaced with new hires who don’t show up late, forget their uniform, or talk back to customers—as anxious parents are well aware. ‘If you mess up once at Harrah’s [a New Orleans casino], you are going to be fired!” a parent called out during the KIPP Renaissance meeting.’”

Antonia Darder explains that charter schools, as well as public schools that implement no-excuse strict disciplinary policies, reflect the ideology of the dominant elite.  She asserts that “attitudes toward poor and working class students of color and the structural conditions that result within many public and charter schools more correctly reflect deeply authoritarian disciplinary and surveillance tactics which closely mimic the culture of incarceration.” Thus, students who nickname KIPP schools as the Kids in Prison Program may not be too far off the mark.

And just what is the value of a charter school education for poor children?  Are strict codes of conduct designed to enable them to enter a non-unionized and low-paying job market prepared to follow the rules, accept the status quo, and never question authority?  Is that what is meant by being college and career ready?  Is that what we really want from our education system in the U.S. — one system of education for poor children that will enable them to fulfill their predestined roles in society by being compliant followers and a different system for the middle and upper middle class children who are prepared to enter society as innovators, creative thinkers, and leaders?

Darder explores the myths that are associated with the charter school movement.  One of these myths is the innovative practices supposedly employed by charter schools.  The pedagogical reality, however, is far from innovative.  Like traditional public schools, charter schools live and die according to standardized test scores and, therefore, employ all available strategies to raise student achievement — even when that means “disappearing” students through suspensions and expulsions who do reflect the mission of the charter school to demonstrate the movement’s assertion that they produce a superior product in the form of higher student achievement.

The roots of the current obsession with school choice and privatization, as Darder explains, can be traced back to conservative efforts to avoid the Brown decision in the 1950s when “freedom of choice” campaigns were employed to maintain segregated schools.  Choice, whether under the guise of school voucher programs or charter schools, cannot be delinked from the conservative assault on public education or from its endorsement by racist societies as a way to use public tax dollars to maintain segregated schools.  Therefore, it is not possible to discuss the charter school movement without broaching the often uncomfortable and unpopular topic of race and class.  To do otherwise is to ignore the history of school choice and to run the risk of repeating a history in which segregated schools were an accepted, and too often preferred, norm in the United States.  This is why I thank the NAACP for their position on charter schools.  As always, they speak for the rights of all children.

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Stopping the Corporate Raid on America’s Public Schools: Local Control Over Education

Britt Dickerson wrote an insightful essay entitled “Investors Ready to Liquidate Public Schools” about the corporate raid on America’s public schools.  Dickerson writes:

“Plans are under way for investment corporations to execute the biggest conversion – some call it theft – of public schools property in U.S. history.

That is not hyperbole. Investment bankers themselves estimate that their taking over public schools is going to result in hundreds of billions of dollars in profit, if they can pull it off.”

Much has been written about the free market corporate plans to cash in on the public dollars associated with RTTT policies and the exploitation of children as profit producing capital.  However, less has been written about how to stop the freight train loaded with venture capitalists hell-bent on reaching the destination of a totally unfettered free market of education in the U.S.

Dickerson succinctly distills the solution.   Who has the power to stop the corporate raiders?

  1. Educators, parents, and concerned community members who “rally to maintain local, democratic control of public schools” … who understand that “any degree of standardization that comes from beyond the state only serves large, nation-wide investor interests.”
  2. Educators who “successfully counter the investor propaganda that parents are the only true stakeholders in a child’s education.” Only “then raiders can be opposed successfully. The oldest to the youngest and richest to poorest members of every community are the true stakeholders in public schools and public education.”
  3. Democratically elected school boards that “stay empowered to make decisions for the local public schools,” … able to resist the raider process.”
  4. Stakeholders who “successfully press legislators to listen to them instead of paid, professional lobbyists hired by large, investor-owned charter corporations… .”

The total destruction of our nation’s public school system is predicated on the elimination of local control over public schools.  Lou Gerstner, former CEO of IBM and current advisor to the Carlyle Group, who served as a chief architect of systemic education reform in the 90s, understood the need to wrestle control away from local school boards in order to push forward free market corporate education reforms.  Gerstner’s legacy among corporate education reformers was cemented in 1996 when he brought together the corporate world with state governors at the IBM headquarters in Palisades to establish the education reform agenda for the nation.  This meeting brought us Achieve — the organization that is credited with the development of the Common Core standards.  In 2008, Gerstner summarized what he had learned over the years as a leading voice in education reform for the The Wall Street Journal.  One of his recommendations addressed the issue of local control over public schools:

Abolish all local school districts, save 70 (50 states; 20 largest cities). Some states may choose to leave some of the rest as community service organizations, but they would have no direct involvement in the critical task of establishing standards, selecting teachers, and developing curricula.”


Need I say more?

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The Brave New World of Big Data

“A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude.” (Aldous Huxley, Brave New World)

Why is the U.S. so enamored with big data?  Perhaps the entire concept of big data fits nicely with a consumer society, like the one portrayed in Huxley’s 1932 novel.  Today, consumerism is the soma.  And while we rail against the government for engaging in the mining of personal data for national security, we don’t seem nearly as bothered by the mining of our data by private corporations.  As a matter of fact, we love the convenience of having our internet searches and ad pop-ups tailored to our tastes as consumers.  But we live in an age in which the data and our internet footprints never go away and we’re not quite sure what will become of it.  Think about radioactive nuclear and chemical waste.  Remember Love Canal, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl.  The original products associated with these locations was not bad and considered beneficial to the region, bringing jobs and energy to the population.  However, what was left behind was far more toxic.

What happens to all the big data after its original use has been thoroughly exploited?  It has an incredibly long shelf life and it highly and easily marketed to another entity who can re-purpose the data for further exploitation.  While education data machine makers offer benevolent reasons for gathering, storing, and reporting all the available data on children from preschool through their college years, this data will never go away.  What other entities will find this data useful and worth whatever price or manipulation to get it.

Will data become destiny for children?  Will it become convenient to sort people according to the data we are accumulating?  Again, we can look back to Huxley’s proposition that social stability will ensue from the acknowledgement that people can become very comfortable with their respective roles.   One of the characters in A Brave New World explains why it is better to be a Beta:

“Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m awfully glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They’re too stupid to be able to read or write. Besides they wear black, which is such a beastly color. I’m so glad I’m a Beta.”

Is grit something we can teach children — or — is it an immutable quality?  Will we conclude after all the grit studies that the quality of a child’s grit level is genetically predetermined and will we decide not to waste too many resources on gritless children?  Will we decide to have them wear a different color or type of Gates’ inspired data collecting biosensor bracelet to continually monitor their attentiveness?  And when they are finished with school, that data can be provided to prospective employers.  They can decide whether or not they can afford to hire a person who, during the 2nd and 3rd grade, was rated as inattentive, unable to focus on academic tasks, and just plain not very gritty.  If they were less gritty for those two years, what’s to say that pattern won’t return at some point?  Best to employ a person with no interruptions in their attentiveness level.

And let’s always remember that poor children are the ones being targeted for explicit grit instruction.  Grit is the magic bullet that will enable them to succeed in spite of the odds.  In 2008, former politician and lingering conservative talking head, Newt Gingrich asserted that “poor kids have no work ethic — unless it comes to doing something illegal. … they have no habits of working and nobody around them who works …”  What they need is the opportunity, even as young as nine years old, to be given paying jobs such as mopping hallways in school.  In a brave new world, Epsilons can mop the floors.  Maybe if they can earn a few shekels, they can develop at least a little grit. But will they ever become Betas or Alphas?  You tell me.

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ACT, Data, and Grit: Don’t You Want to Know if Your Kindergartner has the Right Stuff?

ACT wants to ensure that teachers have access to “actionable” data to improve instruction.  Apparently, access to actionable data means longitudinal P-16 data systems to track students from preschool through college so that students are prepared for the 21st century.  Teachers, schools, and districts need to “closely monitor student performance at every stage of the learning pipeline.”  It’s not enough to follow students’ academic success, either. According to the ACT, it is equally important to monitor behavioral habits that will ensure later postsecondary success.  These behaviors include “motivation, social engagement, and self-regulation.”  And it’s not enough to begin instilling these virtues in students as they enter middle or high school; the ACT asserts that it is necessary to begin as early as possible — in preschool.  Certainly, if ACT begins collecting data in preschool, by kindergarten it can be determined if students need remediation in the areas of motivation, social engagement, and self-regulation.  There’s a growing body of research to enable schools and teachers to begin the process of making sure that children — at the same time they are learning to tie their shoes, share toys, correctly name the letters of the alphabet, make a swing go back and forth without the assistance of another person, ride a bike, and speak in complete sentences — are prepared for college and careers.

Leading the charge of developing the research base to enable schools to gather the data to be used in these endeavors has been the Duckworth Lab at the University of Pennsylvania.  This is the lab that has developed the Grit Scales celebrated by Paul Tough in his widely popular book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.  I read Tough’s book a few months ago.  The first few chapters of the book were compelling.  However, by the end of the book I realized that what he really learned from his research in the area of education, grit, and the hidden power of character was a contradiction in itself.  The reality is that children who come from money and comfort, who attend elite private schools, in fact need no grit at all to succeed.  On the other hand, children who come from poverty and insecure communities need all the grit available to overcome all the obstacles that are commonplace features in their lives.  And even then grit may not be enough to succeed academically — their grittiness may be channelled into other areas in order to make life bearable.  Tough’s book didn’t leave me so much in a state of dissonance, but with a level of discomfort at the obvious contradictions in his book.  Tough’s conclusions on one hand are so obvious — poor kids are trapped in a world not of their making and, therefore, will face extreme odds in their efforts to succeed.  The solution to disparities in academic achievement, according to Tough, is to overtly teach grit-oriented skills and behaviors to poor students.  On the other hand, it is clear that money and privilege create a world for some in which the world is full of possibilities.  These kids don’t need grit; they just need to follow their parents’ lead as they enter the world of college and careers.  So, does grit really matter?

The Duckworth Lab, under the leadership of Angela Duckworth, provides the road map for organizations like the ACT in developing a plan for measuring college and career readiness behaviors among young children.  While researchers at the lab may claim that they are simply continuing in the research already championed by psychologists for more than a century, their research agenda reveals the potential for misuse of their findings to impose on teachers, schools, and children practices that may very well be problematic and even harmful.

First, there is the very real potential for students to not only be labeled deficient based on their academic record, but also labeled as deficient for not being sufficiently motivated to learn and unable to persevere in tasks.  This is already happening at KIPP schools, whose leaders have partnered with Angela Duckworth in developing a report card for “predictive character strengths that are correlated to leading engaged, happy, and successful lives: zest, grit, optimism, self-control, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity.”

A second potential problem with the Duckworth grit notion is a sense that the inferential statistics that the grit scales are based on are reliable in predicting success.  It positions the individual, and in this case children, as having the power to direct their own lives solely based on their possession of these traits.  While these character traits may be very good things to possess as an individual, I think it is clear that adults make policy decisions about economics, healthcare, employment, education, and national security that inhibit an individual’s ability to succeed.  Just ask college graduates who have amassed an average of nearly $30,000 in student loan debt and are having difficulties finding jobs if their level of grit has ensured their success.  They certainly had the grit it supposedly takes to earn a college degree, but that sometimes doesn’t make their entree into the career world any easier and doesn’t reduce their financial constraints as they try to being an adult life.  The Duckworth approach to success and happiness ignores the power of cooperative and collective action in making the world a better place.  Where on the KIPP report card is there any mention of cooperative action?  The only trait that moves beyond the individual is social intelligence and even that is defined in a way that doesn’t necessarily reflect a sense of shared community.  According to KIPP, social intelligence is measured as the ability to “find solutions during conflicts with others,” to show that “s/he cared about the feelings of others,” and to adapt “to different social situations.”  It is about individual actions, not about the health and well-being of the whole.

Third, and perhaps most troubling, is the potential of grit research to lead to stereotyping, bias, and racism.  The application of Duckworth’s research to children attending schools in low socioeconomic communities, schools which predominantly serve children of color, exacerbates discussions of how to improve the outcomes for these children.  It provides a convenient tool for blaming the children and their families for the social problems that inhibit their ability to succeed.  It diverts attention away from the structural factors that have left entire communities without jobs that pay a living wage, with crime and violence and a police state ready to counter with violence, and with the vestiges of a racist society that too quickly judges people based on the color of their skin or the language they speak.  The Duckworth Lab’s research statement should be a harbinger for all who care about education and children.  The research of Francis Galton, the father of the eugenics movement, is cited as providing a theoretical foundation for the lab’s research.  In the world of research, I suppose, all research is relevant in that it can be expanded upon, confirmed, or negated.  It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that Galton’s research formed the basis for the Nazi regime’s actions toward Jews and other ethnic groups, homosexuals, and those suffering from genetic and mental disorders. Angela Duckworth expands upon Galton’s research and, therefore, resurrects his name in the arena of research in human development. Whatever value the researchers at the Duckworth lab may find in Galton’s research, it is clear that his research was misused and had a catastrophic impact on humanity. So, why resurrect it now?  And why apply it to our most vulnerable citizens — the children who have no vote or voice in education policy decisions?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll continue to say it again and again.  Data is not destiny.

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Rick Hess Resurrects the “Blow Up Schools of Education” Mantra

In a recent posting on his Education Week blog “Straight Up,” Rick Hess resurrected Reid Lyon’s now tired assertion that in order to reform education. a good place to start is blowing up colleges of education.  Only now Rick Hess thinks he has a better idea — a better “path.”  Apparently, Hess spent some time with a few dozen education school deans.  He found them to be “smart people and willing to engage with dissenting voices.”  However, he has a different view of the faculty members who work within schools of education.  We, according to Hess, “as a rule … display strong biases on questions like accountability, use of monetary incentives, and school choice.”  And Hess went on to state in a tweet that education faculty members are not only biased, but guilty of venality.  Actually, that’s not only outrageous, but seems to contradict his own thesis.  Hess lauds the University of Arkansas’ “Walmart Department of Education Reform and School Privatization.”  While many education department faculty members seem to be biased against the current feeding frenzy of free market corporate education reformers (and, thus, lose out on the wealth that can be accumulated by casting their lot with the charter school operators, test publishers, and data producing machine makers), the University of Arkansas is not accused of venality for cashing in on the Walton family fortune.  The Walton family certainly did pay a lot to buy a policy department that would actively promote a free market education reform agenda — a whopping $300 million dollars, the largest “gift” in the history of public higher education!

I think it’s interesting that Rick Hess positions himself and other “think tank” scholars as the downtrodden and oppressed — losing the policy debate to the “tens of thousand of faculty in teacher-preparation programs at state colleges of education.”  As one of those faculty members in a  teacher preparation program, I think Hess is disingenuous in taking this position.  Or maybe he just hasn’t gotten the memo — you guys have won!  You got pretty much everything you wanted: education reformers wanted more accountability, “no excuse” policies, more data, more testing, and more school choice.  They wanted teachers to be held accountable for their students’ performance on tests. they wanted a debate on teacher tenure, and they wanted more non-traditional teacher preparation programs like Teach for America.

Education reformers started winning the policy debate a long time ago.  Republicans promoted your agenda. Democrats promoted your agenda.  And Obama placed the laurel wreath on the head of education reformers as the ultimate winner when he and Arne Duncan gifted you with RTTT.  Rick Hess, thou protesteth too much!  Oh, I know you have been very vocal in your criticism of the Common Core.  However, the Common Core was just one of the policies in the gift basket education reformers received from the federal government.  And now some free market education reformers want to keep everything else in the gift basket and give back the one thing they find distasteful.

Rick Hess states, “It’s a huge mistake to regard ed schools as implacably hostile. Ed schools are shifting assemblages of individuals, with views that are not preordained. Instead of writing off all the institutional heft that ed schools’ control, it’s time for reformers to get in the ring and work to ensure that some top colleges of education become places that can produce and host a healthy quotient of reform-minded thinkers.”  By reform-minded thinkers, it’s obvious that he is referring to free market, corporate, pro-choice education reform proponents.

Law schools, according to Hess, had to address the same “entrenchment” he now cites as a problem in schools of education.  The conservatives had to step in and rescue the law schools.  Hess is laudatory of Henry Manne who was recruited in 1985 by George Mason University to “build a law school from scratch.”  Manne, according to Hess, was free to “launch an Austrian-flavored program free from such constraints. While lacking a significant endowment, alumni network, or institutional brand, the new school soon enjoyed enormous success as a place of refuge for conservative scholars… .”

It is clear, that Hess’ better “path” for schools of education includes creating some supposed refuge for these conservative scholars.  First, why do conservatives need a refuge?  They seem to be doing quite well in the education policy arena.  Second, just what would a school of education that employs conservative thinkers among its faculty look like?  I think Hess is woefully unaware of what teacher preparation program faculty members actually do, in spite of the fact that he claims otherwise.  Increasingly, our jobs revolve around enacting policies that these conservative free market corporate reformers have been promoting over the years.  Regardless of our personal and professional education policy beliefs, we are committed to our students’ success and the success of the students they will teach.  In New York, where I work in a teacher preparation program, our education majors take numerous standardized tests to become licensed to teach after graduation.  There’s no lack of accountability here.  Education professors may question the quality of the Common Core, but we prepare our students to enter a profession dominated by the standards.  It doesn’t matter if we are conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican.  If we are entrenched as Hess claims, it is not an entrenchment of our choice.  It’s an entrenchment foisted on us by “reform minded” policy makers, the kind that Rick Hess admires.

Hess may decry those who wish to “blow up” schools of education.  However, his attack is no less vehement.  He concludes his article by saying: “‘Blow up the ed schools’ is the disgruntled cry of the defeated. The goal shouldn’t be to silence other voices, but to break the monopoly and insist on a fair competition of ideas.”  There is no monopoly, Rick Hess.  There is no  public school monopoly and there is no monopoly among schools of education.  The reality is this: there are those in dominant positions of power who want to destroy the democratic institution of public schools through free market policies under the guise of “choice.”  On the other hand, there are those of us who are actively working to preserve the long honored and beneficial system of public education.  It shouldn’t be surprising that many of us proudly work in teacher preparation programs.

Christopher Lubienski’s Review of The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy

I am indebted to Christopher Lubienski for taking time to review my book, The Origins of the Common Core:  How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy.  I consider his scholarship to be a valuable resource for anyone engaged in the quest to reclaim the democratic institution of public education in the U.S.  His book The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools (co-authored with Sarah Theule Lubienski) provides much needed insight into the failure of market-based education reform efforts.  Dr. Lubienski is a professor of education policy, organization and leadership at the University of Illinois.

I felt very honored to read Dr. Lubienski’s review of my book on the Palgrave Macmillian website:

“This timely book goes beyond the tired debates about the Common Core State Standards and asks instead: How did we get here, with self-appointed “reformers” casting public schools as the enemy, and unproven market models for education as the answer? This comprehensively documented treatment of that question proves that Deborah Duncan Owens is a voice to be reckoned with in education policy debates.” – Christopher Lubienski, Professor of Education Policy, University of Illinois, USA; Sir Walter Murdoch Visiting Adjunct Professor, Murdoch University, Australia; and author of The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools (2014)

Again, thank you, Dr. Lubienski!

Deb

Thank you Susan Ohanian for Reviewing The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy

A number of years ago, when I was beginning my research in education reform I found a trusted voice.  Susan Ohanian’s website has been a ready source for commentary on education and she has been a stalwart supporter of public education.  Her book Why is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools, written with Kathy Emery in 2004, is a must read for anyone trying to understand how corporate reformers were able to highjack education policy in the U.S.  She’s written numerous other books, articles, and commentaries in support of teachers, students, and parents.  In 2003 she was awarded the NCTE Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language her contribution to public discourse about education policy.

Susan Ohanian generously agreed to provide a pre-publication review of my book The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy.  I was delighted to read the following on the Palgrave Macmillan website:

“Deborah Owens offers a detailed probe of the corporate-political alliances that cross party lines to push radical ventures traveling as education reform. She provides a needed history of what is really behind the Common Core, the curriculum and testing it requires, and why anyone who supports the survival of local public schools should care.” – Susan Ohanian, Fellow, National Education Policy Center

Susan Ohanian’s endorsement of my book means a great deal to me.

Thank you,

Deb