The recently-appointed Providence Public School Department Superintendent Christopher Maher has been on the job for a year after having been made the interim superintendent last June. A former Vice President at Mass Insight, a corporate education enterprise, he has just finished his first round of year-end standardized testing administration. Teachers in Providence have offered a variety of opinions, some think there is much improvement in comparison to his predecessors while others have expressed concern about policies, particularly in regards to disciplinary matters and teacher safety.
We decided to hold Maher to some standards and see what the experts have to say.
Dr. Shawgi Tell of Nazareth College is a Professor in the Social and Psychological Foundations of Education Department whose new book Charter School Report Card is based on multiple years of study of the charter industry and how the implementation of this neoliberal agenda has served taxpayers.
In the long run, it is not a passing grade for charters nationwide.
Many charters are closing on a yearly basis and more would if they were being held to the rigorous standards their public school counterparts are, says Dr. Tell in my interview with him. The notion of the schools somehow being more flexible in terms of curriculum and other pedagogical matters is almost entirely fictional. Disciplinary standards are to be widely criticized, best exemplified by the recent news story of one Fall River charter, Argosy Collegiate.
Dr. Tell says “As far as what’s happening with the superintendents situation in Providence, Rhode Island, I looked into a little bit. It seems to me there’s something there that at least caught my attention. The first one is that the outgoing superintendent, Susan Lusi, she is leaving her post and she is going to work for Mass Insight, which is the same organization that newly-appointed superintendent, Chris Maher, is coming from. And so if you read a little bit about Mass Insight, what I gathered from my just little bit of research that I did, that they are an organization that is committed to the privatization of public schools. And so I think it would be very helpful to know, well, what is the agenda of the new superintendent in Providence, Rhode Island, especially if he’s coming from a background that’s known for privatizing schools and charter-izing public schools? So I would pay attention to that.”
According to their website, “Mass Insight Education (MIE) is a national nonprofit at the forefront of education reform. Its mission is to transform public schools into high-performing organizations and close the achievement gap through bold district restructuring and rigorous academic programs. We are dedicated to improving student achievement and increasing college success.”
For more of my interview with Dr. Tell click the player below!
This is important to understand at the outset because of the nature of Maher’s entrance into Providence. When Linda Borg at the Providence Journal reported on his entrance into the office in June 2015, she said that Maher had previously been retained by Providence for “consulting with the district on school-change issues for several years”, with Mass Insight having been retained in 2011. Lusi was given the job at Mass Insight on March 18, according to this press release. In another story by Borg, dealing with Lusi’s departure, she wrote:
Lusi is leaving Providence without a job. She plans to interview educational leaders across the country to see what might be next. “I’m really bad at looking for a job while my heart and soul are in another place,” she said. “This is the fourth time I’ve done this” — left one job without another in the wings.
It would be inappropriate to suggest something conspiratorial or nepotistic in this situation, in all likelihood a neoliberal school administrator leaving a district and going to a neoliberal education think tank is par for the course in this industry as it is in any other. Lusi’s abrupt resignation was based on her scorn for Providence’s system of operations, which Borg called “a cumbersome and inefficient bureaucracy”.
However, some recent events surrounding these checks and balances, as well as Maher’s handling of labor issues, are perhaps an augury of what might be yet to come. There was the February clerical union contract negotiations wherein Maher said of the administrative offices on Westminster Street:
“We say we want to hold our partners accountable, we say we want to hold our schools accountable,” Maher said. “Well, as a district, we should be held accountable as well,” Maher said.
Maher’s policies, which were put in place by a clerical union that was forced to accept the contract or face layoffs under a clause in the previous contract, were derived from an audit Lusi had commissioned Mass Insight to conduct. And while the news here dealt with the offices on Westminster Street, the fact is that the clerical union also represents school secretaries throughout the district, some of whom would gain bad statistics for attendance due to working in old buildings that can make them sick due to exposure to mold, asbestos, pre-existing pollution at the building site, or other elements.
The chain of command in any public school district is the superintendent answers to the ultimate authority of the school board and not City Hall. However, consider the statements made by former School Board President Keith Oliveira in his publicized resignation letter to Mayor Elorza in January:
As you know, I have a fundamental disagreement with your administration over the role of the Providence School Board and its relation to your office. I believe that the school board serves the public purpose of governing and overseeing the proper delivery of a quality education to all Providence students. In my view, service on the school board is a public service to the students and families of the Providence Public Schools. As such, the school board should have independent latitude to make informed decisions that best serve the needs of our students and families absent from political interference from your office. Having served one year with your administration, I’ve come to understand that you consider the school board to essentially be an extension of your office and the school board’s role is to carry out decisions that are made and dictated by your office. I have never agreed to serve under such conditions and I will not serve under such conditions.
In another story by Borg written in January, it becomes clear that “the mayor interfered with the school’s budget process, telling former Supt. Susan Lusi to submit a budget to the School Board without the $8 million in new funding that the school board’s finance committee had recommended. Lusi resigned unexpectedly in June, blaming a system of governance that made it difficult for her to get things done in a timely manner. Lusi also acknowledged that she was frustrated with school funding, although she said it wasn’t the main reason for her resignation.”
As such, we see a Mayor with a cash-strapped municipality who is overstepping a traditional line of the checks and balances system and allegedly turning the school board into little more than an arm of City Hall.
We have a Superintendent with a background in the charter industry who has yet to speak out against the payment of a finder’s fee to Teach For America, which places under-trained non-teachers in classrooms, something that would be his prerogative to speak out about.
Meanwhile, we have a newspaper of record whose editorial page is run by the spouse of a charter industry insider and which regularly features propaganda advocating their expansion. Consider this testimony by Providence Teachers Union Treasurer Alex Lucini:
If it is not evident already, Maher has a tremendously stressful job at hand.
One Providence teacher was kind enough to provide some insights about the Superintendent:
T: So far he has been a good partner. He seems well-liked by the community teachers and students. He hasn’t had to make a difficult decision yet as superintendent so the jury is still out on how he will handle adversity. His mission to push supports out of central office has been well received with the exception of the clerical union who felt they were mis-classified as pencil pushers
AS: The major thing I have heard about previously is the issue of teacher safety, I have heard teachers complain of issues around students assaulting teachers.
T: Yes, I think a major area is around the student code of conduct. Teachers don’t feel supported due to an emphasis to reduce suspensions. Suspension is a function of administration. I’m more of a believer in restorative practices but we as a faculty haven’t received training on it nor has there really been a centralized plan on how to implement restorative practices into schools.
AS: That makes sense totally and it has a level of theoretical logic but it also very quickly leads into a discussion of funding, you can’t rehabilitate without the money. Do you think there is a concern about expanding charters?
T: I see that as a threat from the city not so much with the superintendent’s support. I know Achievement First will be looking to build a middle school next year. I’m hoping that the State Legislature finds a way to correct the building of a two-tier school system that the Mayoral Academies are creating.
That two-tiered system is something I am familiar with intimately. I went to Bishop Hendricken High School, an all-male Catholic prep school that did function as the upper-tier school in Warwick when it came to sports and academics. Tuition was phenomenally high as a result. But also, interestingly, the teachers were not shy about admitting they were taking a pay cut to work in a Catholic school and that their contracts were renewed year-to-year, meaning there was no such thing as tenure.
Tenure is a key institution in the public school system because, like in higher education, it creates the allowance for teachers that function as effective community activists and leaders. In essence, while the anti-tenure narrative is made to seem like an issue of union over-reach and bureaucracy, it is actually an attack on a fundamental pillar of First Amendment free speech exercise. It bears mentioning in these contexts that Teach for America, in dealing with recent bad press, has retained for a PR effort the New York Campaign for Achievement Now, which also “wants to weaken teacher tenure laws”.
For instance, a surefire way for a Hendricken or La Salle teacher to lose their job would be to express public support for same-sex marriage and adoption or a woman’s right to have an abortion. Those are uniquely Catholic instances of this hindrance of political speech, brought about by uniquely Catholic sexual mores and taboos, but one does not need a creative imagination to envision the public encouragement of resistance to neoliberal policy enactments, such as austerity measures, privatization of public utilities, or gentrification, having similar impacts on public school teachers.
The ability to be fired for political speech, be it in protest of geopolitical issues like war or local political issues like education funding formulas, is part and parcel of what the late political scientist Sheldon Wolin described as “inverted totalitarianism”, the operating system of the American neoliberal imperial superpower. He wrote:
Inverted totalitarianism begins to crystallize amidst the affluence of the world’s most dynamic economy… In contrast to the Nazis, the ever-changing economy of Superpower, despite its affluence, makes fear the constant companion of most workers. Downsizing, reorganization, bubbles bursting, unions busted, quickly outdated skills, and transfer of jobs abroad create not just fear but an economy of fear, a system of control whose power feeds on uncertainty, yet a system that, according to its analysts, is eminently rational. [Emphasis added]
The instance when Central Falls fired its tenured teachers several years ago, also caused by poor municipal finances, is now marked by education scholars as a significant loss for the unionized teacher movement in this ongoing war against tenure. Teacher unions are a major target because of the simple fact that they are made up of highly educated individuals, unlike construction unions that do not by default require a Bachelor’s degree for admittance. Both Central Falls and Providence teachers were and still are plagued by this uncertainty. Now Central Falls and Pawtucket have seen a growth in charters in their municipalities, reducing the ability of their teachers to serve a vital civic role.
Should tax dollars be funding creation of a tiered system that hinders free speech when the Catholic Church has been doing this job for decades on its own dime? With the charter industry getting such bad statistical metrics from Dr. Tell’s research, should the City consider further funding of them when it could be redirecting resources towards renovations of buildings in dire need of it, particularly considering that the construction industry is literally begging for the work?
The education system of any society is a major marker of its overall health. Providence native Dr. Henry Giroux, a working class kid who got a basketball scholarship and became a leading scholar in the field of critical pedagogy, recently wrote a column titled Why Teachers Matter in Dark Times that is worth quoting at length:
For the most part, public school teachers and higher education faculty are a national treasure and may be one of the last defenses available to undermine a growing authoritarianism, pervasive racism, permanent war culture, widening inequality and debased notion of citizenship in US society. They can’t solve these problems but they can educate a generation of students to address them. Yet, public school teachers, in particular, are underpaid and overworked, and lack adequate resources… Under the counterfeit appeal to reform, national legislation imposes drill-and-test modes of pedagogy on teachers that kill the imagination of students. Young people suffer under the tyranny of methods that are forms of disciplinary repression. Teachers remain powerless as administrators model their schools after prisons and turn students over to the police. And in the midst of such egregious assaults, teachers are disparaged as public servants… Public schools and higher education are “dangerous” because they hold the potential to serve as laboratories for democracy where students learn to think critically. [Emphasis added]
In the end, any analysis of Maher would really be a microcosm of the strengths or failings of not just Providence but Rhode Island and America. The impacts on our students, borne out in fundamentally flawed testing metrics that measure how successfully the education system has stifled their creativity and the ability to think outside the box (or in this case, Scan-Tron sheet bubbles), are demonstrative of how this disaster capitalism is impacting all of us. And so the grade not just for Maher but for all of us is delivered in a line from a play that was at Trinity Rep last fall.
Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves.