Monthly Archives: January 2015

Does Andrew Cuomo REALLY Want Parents to Understand What is Happening With Education?

Last week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo sat down with the editorial board of the New York Daily News to discuss his reasons for upping the ante in his campaign to decrease teachers’ workplace protections and to make 85% of teacher evaluations depend upon standardized exams and observers outside of school.  During his meeting, he characterized the NYSUT, which withheld its endorsement during his reelection campaign, as an “industry” more interested in protecting its members than with the children that those members teach, and he bragged about berating a union representative who claimed to represent students.  The Governor also claimed that the only reason there is not more agitation for the kind of reforms that he is pursuing is because parents do not really know what is going on in their schools:

“If (the public) understood what was happening with education to their children, there would be an outrage in this city,” Cuomo said. “I’m telling you, they would take City Hall down brick by brick.

“It’s only because it’s complicated that people don’t get it.”

That’s quite a pronouncement from the Governor when citywide surveys show that well over 90% of public school parents in NYC are satisfied with the instructional environment in their children’s schools, agree that their schools keep them informed of their children’s progress, and would recommend their school to other parents.  That same survey showed that parents’ top concern by far was classroom sizes — “firing a hell of a lot more teachers” did not break into the top ten.

But, you know, Governor Cuomo knows “what is happening with education to their children” far better than the parents.

Of course, it is possible that the most vulnerable parents and student populations are not represented in the survey data which is a legitimate concern, and there is certainly no doubt that there are schools where great many students struggle to learn a basic curriculum.  However, for the Governor to claim that all sits at the feet of our teachers means he is ignoring vast amounts of evidence.  Dr. Aaron Pallas of Teachers College notes:

Anyone who doubts that poverty and district finances matter in the achievement equation need only look at a scatterplot of the percentage of third-graders in a school who are proficient in English Language Arts and the percentage of students in that school who are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch. In schools where 90 percent or more of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, 15 percent of the students are proficient. Conversely, in schools where fewer than 10 percent of students are free-lunch-eligible, an average of 53 percent are proficient. This is not because all of the good teachers are in low-poverty schools.

So while the Governor’s proposals will make it far less likely that any beginning teacher will ever reach tenure in New York state, his proposed “solution” for schools with very few students reaching proficiency on state exams has literally no connection to the strongest correlation with low performance — poverty.

On a much broader set of issues, I am not at all certain that Governor Cuomo REALLY wants parents who “understood what was happening with education to their children” — because what is happening right out of the Governor’s office is pitchfork worthy.

Does Governor Cuomo really want parents to understand what is happening with funding in Albany? If they did, they would know that both litigation and legislation committed Albany to increase annual education aid to districts by 7 billion dollars in 2007, but that the state remains about 5.6 billion dollars BELOW that target.  They would know that the Governor, who scoffs at the notion that schools are underfunded, continues to use the Gap Elimination Adjustment to plug holes in the operating budget by raiding promised aid to school districts, and that the GEA has stolen 8 billion dollars from districts financially squeezed on the other end by the property tax cap the Governor put in place.  They would know that using the funding formula put in place in 2007, Albany is shorting New York City as much as $3-4000 PER PUPIL in a system with over 1 million pupils.

They would know that the Governor’s pledge to increase education aid by $1.1 billion is less than 20% of the funding needed for the state to meet its obligations to schools districts, and that the $380 million he will allow if he does not get the changes he wants represents barely 7%.

Does Governor Cuomo really want parents to understand what is happening with charter school favoritism in Albany?  If they did, they would know that last year as New York Mayor Bill De Blasio was slowing down the expansion of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy chain of charter schools because one such expansion was set to kick students with special needs out of their school, Governor Cuomo did not merely support Eva Moskowitz’s multi-million dollar ad campaign against the Mayor and her Albany rally to pressure lawmakers — he participated in making the rally happen.  They would know that after blindsiding the Mayor who was in Albany to rally support for universal Pre-K the same day as Moskowitz shut down her schools and bused her students and parents to the state capitol, the Governor orchestrated budget legislation mandating that New York City pay the rent of all charter schools, even ones that can raise $7.75 million in a single fund raiser.  They would know that Ms. Moskowitz in particular keeps her operations so opaque that she has sued repeatedly to prevent the state from auditing her finances.  They would find out that these supposedly “public schools” have appallingly high attrition rates that come from the almost impossibly strict behavioral standards that are applied even to Kindergarten students, and they would know that a key ally of no-excuses charter schools, Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, openly admitted that such attrition is a feature rather than a bug and that the charter sector has no interest in educating all of our children.

I am quite sure that Governor Cuomo does not want parents to understand how Success Academy (and other charter school) donors have showered him with campaign donations, nor would he like them to tie his largesse to the charter sector to the same backers who have been steadily using charter schools to monetize public education expenditures.

Does Governor Cuomo really want parents to understand what is really happening with the PARRC examination proficiency scores?  If they did, they would know that far from representing a dramatic drop in student achievement, the drop in students reaching “proficient” or higher was engineered by the New York State Education Department under outgoing Commissioner John King.  They would know that “proficient” is neither tied to grade level expectations nor to any reasonable definition of “passing,” and they would know that when anti-teacher activists like Campbell Brown or public dollar profiteers like Eva Moskowitz repeatedly claim that our students are “failing” because of those exams that they are being “economical with the truth.”  They would know that when the Governor asks in his “Opportunity Agenda Book“:

“Last year, less than one percent of teachers in New York State were rated ineffective; but state test results show that statewide only 35.8 percent of our students in 3rd through 8th grades were proficient in math and 31.4 percent were proficient in English Language Arts. We must ask ourselves: how can so many of our students be failing if our teachers are all succeeding?” (p. 228)

…he has joined the anti-public school forces in thoroughly misrepresenting the meaning of the current test scores, and that such misrepresentation is almost certainly deliberate.  Parents would also learn that the value added models based on student standardized test scores that the Governor wants to raise to 50% of teacher evaluations are not endorsed by the American Statistical Association, and that there is no strong research basis for using them as such an important component of teacher evaluation.  They would understand that using a test score rigged to drop most students below the proficient level as the majority of teacher evaluation is little more than a set up to fire teachers with no benefit for their children.

Does Governor Cuomo really want parents to understand what is really happening with our democracy?  While Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s indictment for corruption represents old school quid pro quo misuse of public office for private gain, Governor Cuomo represents something potentially more dangerous to democracy.  Just 341 donors accounted for over half of the Governor’s $40 million campaign fundraising.  81.6% of his donors gave at least $10,000.  Among those donors are major backers of charter school expansion, including donors who funded a $4.2 million Students First NY effort to put the state senate in Republican hands and who collectively donated more than $160,000 directly to Governor Cuomo.

If parents “understand what is really happening” then they would likely notice how Governor Cuomo governs as if he is far more beholden to his high profile donors than to the voters of New York.

Do you REALLY want parents “to understand what is happening with education,” Mr. Cuomo?


Filed under charter schools, Corruption, Funding, politics

New York Parents Alert: Sample Letter For Your PTA

With Governor Cuomo’s damaging education proposals in the open, it is incredibly important that parents become informed about what he intends and stand up to defend their children’s schools. The text below is a slightly modified version of a letter I have sent to the heads of the PTA in my children’s schools in New York City.  In it, I lay out a brief summary of the Governor’s proposals, why it will harm our schools, and urge the PTA to take action to education our parent population about what is going on.

I invite anyone to use the bulk of the text to write your own PTA letters:

My child attends P.S. ***, and I am writing about an issue that I believe is of urgent importance for all parents of public school students in New York State.

Governor Cuomo delivered his State of the State address this week.  As you probably know, he plans many changes to education, including dramatic changes to the ways teachers are evaluated.  It is my belief as a lifelong educator with 21 years teaching experience from 7th grade to higher education and as a scholar of education practice and policy that Governor Cuomo’s teacher evaluation proposals are not merely ill advised; they are abjectly dangerous to the quality of education in every school in the state.

The Governor is proposing that the portion of teacher evaluations tied to student performance on standardized test scores be raised from 20% to 50%.  He further proposes that the remaining 50% be based upon two observations, one conducted by a local administrator for 15% and the other conducted by an approved outside observer for 35%.  The Governor also wants any teacher found “ineffective” on either measure to be unable to be rated as higher than “developing”.

The test score component is problematic for several reasons.  First, it is based upon value-added modeling (VAM) which predicts student annual gains on tests and rates a teacher based on whether students met, exceeded, or fell below the prediction. VAMs, however, are both unreliable and unstable.  The American Statistical Association is so concerned about the use of VAMs in teacher evaluation that they issued a statement last year warning that they do a very poor job capturing teacher input in student learning and should not be used.  VAMs are also unstable, and teachers whose VAM ratings place them in the top quintile in one year can be ranked much lower subsequently which further demonstrates how poorly they capture teacher input.  Teachers in excellent schools are not safe from these models.  In 2011, the “worst” 8th grade math teacher in NYC according to the VAM was at Anderson School, a citywide gifted and talented program.  The VAM placed her at the bottom of all 1300 8th grade math teachers in the city even though all of her honors students passed the Regents Integrated Algebra exam, a third of them with perfect scores.

If Governor Cuomo gets his way, such a teacher will have no recourse because the VAM will count as a full 50% of the evaluation, and a principal like ours will be limited to only 15% of that teacher’s evaluation.  85% of teacher evaluation will be determined by Albany with no local say.

Since NCLB passed in 2001, the increased stakes attached to standardized exams have resulted in a nationwide narrowing of curricula with subjects like social studies, science, art, music, and health losing instructional time because of the drastic consequences attached to mathematics and ELA.  If Governor Cuomo gets the teacher evaluation system he wants, even teachers at PS 87 will be pressured similarly because of the emphasis on value added models and the plan to make principals effectively irrelevant to evaluating their own faculty.  Further, as more experienced teachers are forced out of the classroom for questionable reasons, they will be replaced by new teachers facing steep learning curves to become effective teachers – if they survive long enough.

I strongly recommend that the PTA consider bringing this issue to the attention of PS *** parent community.  There is a limited time this winter for lawmakers in Albany to hear from their constituents, and I firmly believe that every school in the state will be negatively impacted by this plan.

Thank you for your consideration.


Filed under Activism, politics, Social Justice, VAMs

Andrew Cuomo to New York State: Your Teachers Stink. I Will Fire Them. I will Break Their Union.

The gauntlet that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch picked up with their public correspondence in December has been thrown down.  The Governor announced his plans to revamp and revise education in New York with his State of the State address on January 21st, and it was accompanied by a book detailing his policy proposals.  On teacher evaluation, Governor Cuomo is delivering a massive change — and a direct challenge to community control of their teacher workforce.  If the governor gets his way, 50% of teachers’ evaluations will be controlled by students’ annual progress on standardized tests, and no teacher rated “ineffective” in either half of the evaluation will be scored higher than “developing.”   The other 50% of annual evaluations will be comprised of two observations, one by a school administrator and another by an “independent observer” in the form of an administrator from another district or a state approved outside agency.  The so-called “independent observer” observation will count for 35% of the evaluation.  Local administrators are to be restricted to 15%.

New York State principals?  Andrew Cuomo says you cannot do your jobs.  New York State communities?  Nobody in your town is qualified to evaluate your children’s teachers.  Andrew Cuomo wants to take that away for Albany.

Governor Cuomo insists that these draconian measures are necessary because only a third of New York students scored as proficient or highly proficient on the new Common Core aligned standardized examinations, and by his logic that means the teacher evaluation system, which currently weights the results of those exams for 20%, is “baloney” because only 1% of teachers were found ineffective.  However, tying a criticism of the teacher ineffectiveness to the CCSS aligned exams is flagrantly mendacious because “proficient” was never tied to “grade level” or “passing”;  it was tied to SAT scores loosely predictive of college success.

Governor Cuomo’s teacher evaluation plan is set to punish teachers for not graduating vastly more students ready to succeed in college, as measured by one test score, than currently attend college.

What can reasonably be predicted as an outcome of this?  Plenty.  And none of it will be pretty.

First, this policy will fall heavily upon districts with high levels of poverty which are tightly concentrated because of New York’s appallingly high Residential Income Segregation Index.  We know from disaggregated PISA data that schools with high levels of poverty struggle in standardized test achievement compared to schools in affluent communities. Following Governor Cuomo’s logic it is not that these schools and their teachers struggle with the long established deprivations of poverty upon their student population and would benefit from aggressive plans of economic renewal and integration; it is that their teachers are ineffective and need to be fired.

Second, no teacher in New York will be actually safe no matter how good they are or how talented their students.  The value-added models (VAMs) of teacher performance based on standardized tests are by now subject to so much research demonstrating their unreliability that using them at all is indefensible.  The American Statistical Association (ASA) warned last year that teacher input can only account for 1-14% of student variability on standardized tests, and VAM generated rankings of teachers are not stable, meaning a teacher can be in the top 20% in one year and slide below the median in a subsequent year.  If you think that your child attending a selective public school with a math teacher whose students all pass a challenging algebra examination will have that teacher spared via VAMs — think again.  Teachers who are excellent by every other conceivable model of assessment can be rated as the “worst” grade level teacher in New York City via value-added modeling.

And Governor Cuomo wants that to be 50% of teacher evaluations.

The predictable outcome of this will be an objectively worse education for nearly every student in the state.  Consequences from the No Child Left Behind law’s focus on test-based accountability include a steady narrowing of school curricula to subjects that are tested, leaving science, the social studies, the arts, and health as dwindling portions of public eduction.  Teaching to the test as is common practice in “no excuses” charter schools will become a prominent methodology in historically struggling schools, and it will grow in currently successful schools as well.  Teachers and administrators will have little choice — with so much riding on VAMs that unstable and able to find teachers of advanced students in the bottom 10% of teachers, test preparation as curriculum will spread.  Further, as experienced teachers are pushed out, the teacher workforce will become younger, assuming that New York State schools can possibly entice new teachers to start a career under these conditions.  These will be novices whose classroom skills will be on a steep learning curve for their early years, and many of them will be forced out by VAMs before reaching the point where their skills start to level off.

A less experienced teacher workforce teaching more and more to the test — THAT is the likely outcome of Governor Cuomo’s evaluation proposals.  There will also be no local measure that can preserve a teacher in his or her job because the only local component of the evaluation system – local administrator observations – will be restricted to 15%.  Are you a principal whose teachers work in underfunded facilities with students who live in poverty?  Tough.  Are you a parent whose child’s teacher works with gifted students in a curriculum accelerated 2-3 years beyond the test?  Tough.  Are you a school board member who wants to preserve the social studies, sciences, art, music, and health?  Tough.  85% of your teachers’ evaluations are outside the input of any local stakeholders; Albany will be in control.  And Governor Cuomo will hold nearly three quarters of a potential increase in aid for schools hostage unless he gets his way.

It is impossible to not connect the dots here.  Among Governor Cuomo’s most reliable donors are Wall Street supporters of charter school expansion who can turn such schools into revenue streams for private corporations using public money.  Charter schools, among whose strongest supporters at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently admitted are in the business of pushing out harder to educate children, have been turned into a way to monetize our public education budgets.  Governor Cuomo, who raised half of his $40 million election war chest from just 341 donors, owes that sector.

The only entity with enough members and resources to resist that is the NYSUT.

Most of Governor Cuomo’s teacher evaluation plans (and his other education proposals) will make our schools objectively worse places to learn with many fewer experienced teachers and a diminishing curriculum.  However, they will make the teachers’ union much weaker with an unstable and uncertain cadre of members who have less experience and no practical job security — and who will not be able to effectively resist more and more of our public schools turned over to private interests.

Everything about this is wrong.


Filed under Corruption, New York Board of Regents, politics, schools, Testing, Unions

More than Half of America’s School Children Qualify for Free or Reduced Lunch

I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about “Where do we go from here?” that we must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. (Yes) There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. (Yes) And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. (Yes) But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. (All right) It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, “Who owns the oil?” (Yes) You begin to ask the question, “Who owns the iron ore?” (Yes) You begin to ask the question, “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?” (All right) These are words that must be said. (All right)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. August 16, 1967 “Where Do We Go From Here?”

On January 16th, The Washington Post ran a story by Lyndsey Layton about a new report finding that slightly more than half of all American public school students now come from officially low income families. The headline stating those children come from “poor” families was slightly misleading as qualifying for reduced lunch does not require that a family be at the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) which is $23,850 for a family of four. Families qualify for free meals at school at 130% of the FPL ($31,005 for a family of 4), and they qualify for reduced lunch at 185% of the FPL ($44,123 for a family of 4).  However, the reality is that almost half of our public school students live in poverty, near poverty, and low income conditions.  This has dramatic implications for them and for the schools in which they study.

Poverty acts as a third rail in American policy discussions, and it often feels that recognizing the reality for people who live in poverty or near poverty is immediately treated as an attack on American ideals of a meritocratic society.  Reality, however, remains reality, and the deep impacts of poverty upon young people are known.  The 1997 Princeton Study is nearly 20 years old and clearly demonstrated the health, cognitive, educational, and behavioral differences that can be attributed to growing up in poverty.  More recently, the  30 year long Baltimore study reported how intensely stubborn poverty is and how unlikely it is for a child born into poverty to move into the middle class or higher.  Recent research also notes that in addition to long known advantages of higher income families such as educational resources, a poor child who does “everything right” is still barely MORE likely to be economically successful that a rich child who drops out of school – and both are equally likely to be in the lowest quintile of income earners:


As equally troubling as these findings is the difficulty in any prospect of fixing them by current opportunities.  While going to college remains a viable way to maintain economic position for most attendees, it is not because wages for such graduates have been rising to meet inflation or a job market demand for such workers.  Wages for current college graduates is not much higher than it was in the mid-1980s, but the wage premium for a college degree has grown because of the collapse of wages for workers without a college education:


In addition, the lower middle class, historically an important rung on the economic ladder, is not merely struggling; iis largely stay afloat only because of federal transfer programs that take the edge off of their stagnant and falling wages — even as they tend to pay the largest marginal tax rates of all income groups.  The conclusion here is one that has only recently pushed into margins of the mainstream:  it is extremely difficult for individuals and families to move up the economic ladder when several rungs have been sawn off…and individuals and families who slip from the lower middle rung to the bottom have few opportunities to regain security.

All of which makes our current educational “reforms” staggeringly galling, immoral even.  Reformers have been touting for years now changes to our educational commons that involve turning as many neighborhood public schools in charter schools as possible, measuring all success and failures in school by standardized test scores, and attacking the workplace protections of teachers as the only way to “guarantee” that every child has an excellent teacher.  In doing so they literally ignore all the ways in which poverty’s deprivations impact school, and they place upon public school all of the responsibility to boost students’ economic fortunes.  Unexamined?  Tax and trade policies that make it possible for just 4 hedge fund managers to earn more income in a single year than every single Kindergarten teacher in America combined.  Corporations whose business models do not include paying full time employees enough money to avoid going on public assistance.  Wages for most workers that have barely moved in real purchasing power since the mid-1960s. That concentration of income means that 10% of income earners now make more than half of all income in America.  Education “reformers” demand that “fixing” that should rest entirely upon America’s education system — even as their allies in state capitols around the country have played budget games to keep from raising taxes on the wealthy.  In New York State, that amounts to billions of dollars of year that Albany pledged but never delivered to local public schools.

Only in America would education “reform” be millionaires (Campbell Brown, Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein) working for billionaires (Whitney Tilson, Rupert Murdoch, Eli Broad, the Walton family, Bill Gates) to convince poor and lower middle class communities that the problems in education and economic opportunity for their children rest entirely upon the barely middle class teachers in their local schools.

Professor Yohuru Williams of Fairfield University notes that those same “reformers” have taken up the mantle of civil rights in their demands that school be responsible for providing all the opportunity for children in poverty — usually as cover for schemes that privatize more and more of our educational commons.  Dr. Williams takes issue with their adoption of Dr. King for their cause:

For King, the Beloved Community was a global vision of human cooperation and understanding where all peoples could share in the abundant resources of the planet. He believed that universal standards of human decency could be used to challenge the existence of poverty, famine, and economic displacement in all of its forms. A celebration of achievement and an appreciation of fraternity would blot out racism, discrimination, and distinctions of any kind that sought to divide rather than elevate people—no matter what race, religion, or test score. The Beloved Community promoted international cooperation over competition. The goal of education should be not to measure our progress against the world but to harness our combined intelligence to triumph over the great social, scientific, humanistic, and environmental issues of our time.

While it seeks to claim the mantle of the movement and Dr. King’s legacy, corporate education reform is rooted in fear, fired by competition and driven by division. It seeks to undermine community rather than build it and, for this reason, it is the ultimate betrayal of the goals and values of the movement.

This observation is especially important today on the date set aside for reflection on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and on the work that is left unfinished from his movement.  One of the most glaring unfinished task today is the poverty and near poverty that afflicts over half of our students in public education.  Accompanying that is the coordinated campaign of deflection and misdirection by our current generation of education “reformers” who want to pitch community members against each and against public education while the policy makers and the oligarchs who influence them most heavily continue to ignore the wishes of bi-partisan majorities in the electorate.

It is well past time that we revoked their appropriation of Dr. King’s mantle.  It belongs with those who want our nation to finally confront poverty, not with those who blame public school for the decisions of the powerful.

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Filed under Activism, Corruption, politics, Social Justice

Arne Duncan’s Great Kid Story Problem

In his speech laying out administration priorities for the renewal or rewrite of No Child Left Behind, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan turned to a personal anecdote to explain the imperative of accountability based reform:

In between my junior and senior year at college, I took a year off to help in my mother’s after-school tutoring program on the South Side of Chicago and figure out if I really wanted to devote my life to this fight for educational opportunity.

One of the students I tutored was a basketball player at the local high school, who was studying to take his ACT.

He was a great kid who had done all the right things. In a very violent neighborhood, he had stayed away from the gangs. He didn’t drink, he didn’t use drugs. He was actually an honor roll student with a “B” average, and on track to graduate. I initially thought this was absolutely a young man who could beat the odds and defy the negative stereotypes of young black men.

But as we started to work together, I was heartbroken to quickly realize that he was basically functionally illiterate.

He was reading at maybe a 2nd or 3rd grade level, and was unable to put together a written paragraph. Tragically, he had played by all the rules, but had no idea how far behind he was. Throughout his life, he had been led to believe that he was on-track for college success.

And he was nowhere close.

The educational system had failed him, and the buck stopped nowhere.

This is the kind of personal story that makes great fodder for satirical pieces in The Onion, but I will grant Secretary Duncan a point: there are children in the system who are passed along from grade to grade without learning enough to be successful in more complex subjects later on.  And the Secretary has a point that in too many cases like these few people are willing to take responsibility.  When I talk to my education students about this, I frame this as a cycle of blame passing:  The ninth grade teacher has a student who cannot write well and blames the junior high teachers for what they didn’t teach.  The junior high teachers blame the middle school teachers, and the middle school teachers blame the elementary school teachers.  Eventually, the child is in utero and nobody has taken proper responsibility for teaching the child as he has arrived in the classroom that year.  Given that higher education institutions report that about 20% of first year students need to take at least one remedial class when they arrive (and even 12.8% of entering students at very selective 4 year schools), it is reasonable to ask if our elementary and secondary education systems can do a better job preparing more students for further schooling.

Of course, answering such questions are complex.  Critics and reformers often point to the number of college students in need of some remediation and state those students are “not ready” for college.  That’s far too broad a brush.  For starters, the numbers are variable by the type of institution reporting, by race and ethnicity, by gender, by age of student, by dependency status, and by the educational obtainment of the parents of the student receiving remediation.   Additionally, students can receive a wide variety of remediation in college from a single studies skills course to an entire plate of courses meant to “plug holes” from elementary and secondary education.  A student who dropped out of high school, got a GED at 25, and enrolled in Community College who needs math instruction to progress in a STEM program is far less worrisome than the young man in Secretary Duncan’s anecdote who is reported as laboring under the impression that his reading level being at The Magic Treehouse series is going to get him into college.

There’s just a problem.  Secretary Duncan’s priorities for the NCLB revision won’t help him either.

It isn’t that someone shouldn’t have taken responsibility for the young man’s learning (although how Secretary Duncan, at the callow age of 20 or 21 could actually tell that nobody had done so is left unexplained); it’s that forcing that responsibility by holding his teachers accountable to his standardized test scores each and every year, as favored by the Obama administration, is one of the worst paths to take to help him.

“Testing” is not a dirty word.  As part of a multiple assessment system to help teachers, students, and parents know where students stand and in what areas students need help.  Formative assessments, however they are developed and administered, are meant to provide the kind of feedback that can personalize instruction and help teachers as they create a rich and complete curriculum.  Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University notes for what such assessments cannot be used:

This information should NOT be used for “accountability” purposes. It should NOT be mined/aggregated/modeled to determine at high level whether institutions or individuals are “doing their jobs,” or for closing schools and firing teachers. That’s not to say, however, that there might not be some use for institutions (schools districts) mining these data to determine how student progress is being made on certain concepts/skills across schools, in order to identify, strengths and weaknesses. In other words, for thoughtful data informed management. Current annual assessments aren’t particularly useful for “data informed” leadership either. But this stuff could be, given the right modeling tools.

This is the approach we use to ensure that no child is left behind. By the time annual, uniform, standardized assessment data are returned in relatively meaningless aggregate scores to the front office 6 months down the road, those kids have already been left behind, and the information provided isn’t even sufficiently fine grained as to be helpful in helping them to catch up.

Dr. Baker differentiates testing used for individual diagnostic purposes and testing used for accountability/system monitoring purposes:

When it comes to testing for system monitoring, where we are looking at institutions and systems, rather than individuals, immediate feedback is less important. Time intervals can be longer, because institutional change occurs over the long haul, not from just this year, to next. Further, we want our sampling – our measurements – to be as minimally intrusive as possible – both in terms of the number of times we take those measurements, and in terms of the number of measurements we take at any one time. In part, we want measurement for accountability purposes to be non-intrusive so that teachers and local administrators, and the kids especially, can get on with their day – with their learning – development of knowledge and skills.

So, when it comes to “System Monitoring” the most appropriate approach is to use a sampling scheme that is minimally sufficient to capture, at point in time, achievement levels of kids in any given school or district (Institution). You don’t have to test every kid in a school to know how kids in that school are doing. You don’t have to have any one kid take an entire test, if you creatively distribute relevant test items across appropriately sampled kids. Using sampling methods like those used in the National Assessment of Educational Progress can go a long way toward reducing the intrusiveness of testing while providing potentially more valid estimates of institutional performance (how well schools and districts are doing).

The distinctions here should be obvious, and they are crucial:  accountability relies upon system wide data that is best captured via sampling, and monitoring system wide trends via data does not require that every child be tested in the same standardized test every single year.  As Dr. Baker has shown previously, trying to take this data and use it for accountability of individual teachers based upon value-added modeling does not produce results that are stable and are therefore pretty useless.

Wouldn’t you know that Secretary Duncan has it exactly backwards?

By insisting that large standardized measures be given to every child every year AND endorsing using those data for individual teacher accountability, the Secretary is calling for maintaining a standardized testing regime that is needlessly intrusive and for applying the data from those tests for the wrong purposes.  Worse, it is incentivizing the worst kind of teaching, practices to which Secretary Duncan gave a passing acknowledgement as destructive but which his insistence upon placing the highest stakes on an intrusive testing schedule will entrench into classrooms.  We’ve seen this in the years since NCLB with narrowing curricula and more focus on tested subjects that upon a full, rich curriculum.

One other rationale is possible by insisting upon annual, large scale examinations for every child, but it is one that betrays a lack of imagination.  Secretary Duncan said that:

I believe parents, and teachers, and students have both the right and the absolute need to know how much progress all students are making each year towards college- and career-readiness. The reality of unexpected, crushing disappointments, about the actual lack of college preparedness cannot continue to happen to hard working 16- and 17-year olds – it is not fair to them, and it is simply too late. Those days must be over.

That means that all students need to take annual, statewide assessments that are aligned to their teacher’s classroom instruction in reading and math in grades 3 through 8, and once in high school.

Secretary Duncan is suggesting that mass standardized tests given annually are the tools needed by parents to monitor their children’s progress.  I suppose there may be families out there who are itching for that packet from the state DOE that comes weeks or months after the standardized exam, but I think it is far more likely that parents would like to know that teachers have access and utilize a steady stream of tools to assist their students and to communicate with families.  As it stands, Secretary Duncan insists on giving those parents a single test result that can suggest something is going on but which cannot say a blessed thing about why it is going on.

Arne Duncan is worried about that great kid he met three decades ago.  Sadly, he doesn’t have a clue about what would have helped that child not get lost in the system.


Filed under Common Core, Data, NCLB, teaching, Testing

Liberal Apostasy: Is It Time To Downgrade the Federal Department of Education?

Washington has seen recent jockeying for positions on the debate to repeal or revise the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) as Republican Senator and former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander takes over the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions.  Senator Alexander has signaled that he intends to engage in significant overhauls of the 2001 law which updated the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and which has been due for re-authorization since 2007.  He will likely find atypical allies from traditionally Democratic leaning teacher unions who will join more conservative advocates in calling for a decrease in standardized testing and walking back Obama Administration initiatives that have pushed states to evaluate individual teachers and make tenure and dismissal processes tied to such scores.

Current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan laid out some of his priorities for an overhaul of the legislation in a speech on January 12th, and he was joined by a group statement from a number of venerable civil rights organizations that, among their other priorities for federal education law, called on lawmakers to preserve the annual standardized testing requirements from NCLB.  Given the historic problems in many state with both resistance to integration and with neglecting urban and rural student populations which led to more vigorous federal education laws in the first place, it is not surprising that such organizations would want a new education law to retain tight oversight provisions for the states.  Secretary Duncan, in his planned remarks, emphasized accountability:

I believe parents, and teachers, and students have both the right and the absolute need to know how much progress all students are making each year towards college- and career-readiness. The reality of unexpected, crushing disappointments, about the actual lack of college preparedness cannot continue to happen to hard-working 16- and 17-year olds – it is not fair to them, and it is simply too late. Those days must be over.

That means that all students need to take annual, statewide assessments that are aligned to their teacher’s classroom instruction in reading and math in grades 3 through 8, and once in high school.

As he continued, he framed the need for accountability in civil rights language:

Will we work together to ensure that every public school makes a real priority of the educational progress of minority students, those living in poverty – be there rural, urban, or someplace else — those with disabilities, those learning English, or other groups that have struggled in school in the past? Should unacceptable achievement gaps require action? Or is that simply optional?

Secretary Duncan’s questions were poignant, and the moral authority of the NAACP and the ACLU should have reminded listeners that we have historically done a poor job improving educational opportunity for students minority students and students in poverty.  However, the insistence that annual, standardized test-based accountability is the only solution to making certain that we are accountable to all of our students is deeply flawed.  It is flawed because the testing regimen that Secretary Duncan supports has already narrowed the curriculum received by huge swaths of our student population, even though Secretary Duncan declared that non-tested subjects like science and the arts “are essentials, not luxuries.”  It is flawed because even though Secretary Duncan stated that teachers and principals deserve support, the national reality is that most states are still spending less on education today than they did before the Great Recession even as the federal government has pushed those states to demand much more from those same teachers and principals.  It is flawed because while Secretary Duncan said he believes “teachers deserve fair, genuinely helpful systems for evaluation and professional growth that identify excellence and take into account student learning growth,” his favored metric is the value-added model (VAM) of teacher performance, and the research simply does not support using VAMs as either “fair” or “genuinely helpful” and they certainly cannot “identify excellence” with reliability.

Secretary Duncan once famously said that “We should be able to look every second grader in the eye and say, ‘You’re on track, you’re going to be able to go to a good college, or you’re not,’” so his faith in power of standardized testing data is long lasting and probably sincere, but it has led his department, under the guise of relieving states from the most punishing aspects of NCLB, to push states in educational directions that are legitimately damaging to the public’s trust in education and which incentivize schools and teachers to further narrow their curriculum in search of higher test performance.

Which leads me to a question: Is it time to downgrade the federal department of education?

This is not an idle question because while I believe that the federal legislation from the 1960s and 1970s was a necessary beginning to address systemic inequalities in educational opportunity for the poor, for minorities, for women, and for people with disabilities, the Cabinet level role of the Department of Education has become highly problematic in today’s hyper-focus on standardized testing.  The federal DOE was actually created by Congress in 1979 in order to strengthen the federal commitment to public education and to increase coordination and accountability for the various federal laws that have direct impact on schools.  The department was immediately under fire from conservative activists interested in a smaller federal government, and President Reagan, riding the conservative wave that put him in office, pledged to abolish the fledgling department.  This did not happen, and by the 1990s, the department was secure under the successive Presidencies of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.  With the bipartisan passage of No Child Left Behind, the department was firmly entrenched in pushing states to hold schools accountable to student achievement on standardized test scores, and while the Obama administration Race to the Top grants allowed states to apply for waivers on NCLB requirements that all children read and do math “at grade level,” states had to agree to adopt common standards, expand charter schools, and use standardized test scores to evaluate teachers.  Secretary Duncan made it clear that he would hold states receiving waivers to those agreements when in April of last year, he stripped Washington state’s NCLB waivers for not meeting the federal department’s “requirements for reform.” 

The federal government provides roughly 12% of the annual national spending of $550 billion on elementary and secondary education.  While this does not represent a sum that comes close to helping states meet federal requirements, it has proven enough for the federal government to use the Department of Education to push policies like test-based accountability and rapid expansion of charter schools upon states and locales that might seek other ways to improve their schools given more flexibility.  Title 1 funds, for example, reach 56,000 schools serving 21 million children, but since NCLB those funds have been tied towards demonstration of student annual progress via standardized testing and during the Obama administration states were required to use standardized tests to evaluate teachers if the received waivers from other NCLB provisions.  The federal government can use its funding to enforce specific policy priorities on the states, but it rarely funds those priorities enough to help school districts implement them effectively.  For example, for 40 years the federal government has failed to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), covering roughly 17% of the cost of the legislation even though it has long promised states to cover a full 40%.

Questioning the Cabinet level role of the DOE does not mean abandoning the landmark legislation in education that proceeded the department’s formation, and it is important to recognize the significant and needed impact of that legislation.  Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children in 1975.  In the 1969-1970 school year, a total of 2,677,000 children representing 5.9% of all children in public school received special education services, but none of them were identified with specific learning disabilities.  In the 1979-1980 school year, 4,005,000 children representing 8.9% of all students received special education services, including almost 1.3 million with specific learning disabilities that were being accommodated.  Title IX was passed in 1972 when 386,683 women received bachelors degrees, representing 46% of degrees conferred.  By 1979-1980 school year, that percentage had risen to 49%.  In 1960, five years before the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed, the median years of school attended by an African American male was 7.9, and by 1980, that had increased to 11.9 years — more important, the gap in the median number of years in school between white and black males closed from 20 percentage points.

All of these gains occurred in the wake of landmark federal legislation, but before the Department of Education was created in its current form.

What makes the current federal DOE so problematic in 2015 is not the role that it was created to play, but the fact that most initiatives out of it since Congress passed No Child Left Behind resemble a classic case of regulatory capture by the for profit charter school sector, the testing industry, and the data mining industries.  Unlike other cases of regulatory capture, there appears to be no prospect for partisan realignment as administrations change and monied interests involved in the Executive branch shift — successive two-term Republican and Democratic administrations have charged down the current path, prioritizing testing with increasingly higher stakes.

While eliminating the Cabinet level DOE would impede some of these forces, I am also mindful of important considerations.  First, the civil rights organizations that have signed on supporting Secretary Duncan’s priorities are not wrong in their concern that states have historically neglected and have even actively discriminated against certain populations, and that states and localities must be held accountable for providing equal access and equal opportunities for all of their students. While I disagree that yearly high stakes examinations are the way to ensure that, nobody can reasonably look at our history and dismiss the issue.  Second, demoting the federal DOE might complicate the plans of the interests who have worked to monetize public education, but it is not as if they are absent from state level government. When it comes to adding requirements to teachers while cutting funding and when it comes to turning public schools over to charter corporations, there is little daylight between Democratic star politicians like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, and former Newark Mayor and now United States Senator Cory Booker and Republican counterparts such as Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Chris Christie of New Jersey.

Finally, as Arthur Camins notes here, our problem of the past 15 years can be described as the federal DOE “reaching for the wrong things:”

The problem over the last several decades of education policy is not overreach. It is that the federal government has been reaching for the wrong things in the wrong places with the wrong policy levers. For example, the nation has largely abandoned efforts to end segregation, arguably a prime driver of education inequity. The large-scale, community-building infrastructure and WPA and CCC employment efforts of the Great Depression have given way to the limited escape from poverty marketing pitch of education policy following the Great Recession. Whereas the 1960s War on Poverty targeted community resource issues, current education efforts target the behavior of individual teachers and pits parents against one in other in competition for admission to selected schools.

Professor Camins’ points are well-taken, but advocates for returning public education to the public’s care need ideas for addressing how education policy has been captured in both Washington D.C. and in state capitols. Consider the case of Andrew Cuomo who raised over $40 million between his inauguration in 2010 and reelection in 2014 — more than half of which came from just 341 donors, donors who expect influence upon the governor commensurate with their investment.  In essence, this is a question of rooting up corruption and the circumvention of democratic processes, but as Fordham Law Professor Zephyr Teacher demonstrates, there are no easy answers.

But we must seek answers, even difficult ones.  What has happened at the federal DOE is dangerous for quality and equitable public education, but it is also a symptom of a problem endemic in our politics.  Mere handfuls of extremely wealthy people can override the wishes of millions of voters and circumvent public debate on crucial issues.

We cannot afford it any longer.


Filed under Chris Christie, Corruption, Cory Booker, Funding, Gates Foundation, politics, Social Justice

New York’s Public Schools Need Some Friends in Albany

This is the text of a detailed letter I am sending to my representatives and other leaders in Albany.  I invite anyone to use any portion of it and the resources in the notes to write your own.  However, the New York State Allies for Public Education has a convenient web form that will generate a letter to your representatives as well.  It can be found here.  The agenda has been set by Governor Cuomo and Chancellor Tisch — it will make our schools objectively worse in every way and it will sweep up all teachers regardless of their capabilities.  We need parents, community members, and teachers to band together to say that this must be stopped.  Let’s dare our representatives in Albany to become friends of public education.

The Honorable Linda Rosenthal
LOB 741
Albany, NY 12248

Senator Jose Serrano
181 State Street Room 406
Legislative Office Building
Albany, NY 12247

Dear Assemblywoman Rosenthal and Senator Serrano:

The public schools of New York need some friends in Albany.

I wish I could say that the parents, children, and teachers of this state could count upon friendship in the Governor’s office or at the Regents Chancellor’s office, but both Governor Cuomo and Chancellor Tisch have made it very clear that they intend great harm to our public education system.  They have powerful backers among Wall Street and private foundations, and they have the encouragement of the United States Department of Education, but regardless, what they say they intend to do will not only harm the 600,000 public school teachers of New York, but also it will degrade the quality of education enjoyed by millions of school aged children and counted upon by their parents and communities.

Governor Cuomo vetoed a bill on December 29th that his own office drafted (1) and which would have given teachers and principals a two year grace period from suffering professional consequences due to the results of the new Common Core aligned state examinations.  The Governor justifies this by claiming that the current teacher evaluation system finds too few teachers incompetent and that student scores of the new exams demonstrates that this is untrue.  Chancellor Tisch has joined the Governor in calling for far more rigid teacher evaluations, responding to a December letter from the State Director of Operations with her own priorities. (2) Chancellor Tisch backs changing teacher evaluations so that the 20% currently set aside for local measures of teacher performance be eliminated and that the portion assigned to student growth in standardized tests be raised to 40% overall.  In addition, Chancellor Tisch proposes that a teacher found “ineffective” by the standardized tests be determined to be ineffective overall, and she believes that two such evaluations should lead to a teacher’s removal.

There are few proposals that could be so immediately harmful to students regardless of Governor Cuomo’s declaration that he is looking out for them and that the NYSUT only wants to protect bad teachers.  This change to teacher evaluation rests upon a flawed premise about student achievement in New York, will subject teachers to an evaluation system with no basis in research, and will dramatically harm the quality of curriculum and instruction across the state in both affluent and impoverished districts.

Governor Cuomo and Chancellor Tisch apparently believe that because the student proficiency levels on the new Common Core aligned examinations are in the 30-35% range then it is “obvious” that many more New York teachers must be incompetent and deserve to be removed from the classroom.  This is a flawed premise and deliberately misleading. Both the Governor and Chancellor know full well that the cut scores for proficiency were set deliberately to match SAT scores (3) linked to specific grades in first year college courses.  The percentage of New Yorkers over 25 with a bachelor’s degree is 32.8 (4),so the argument that THESE proficiency levels on THESE exams mean that many New York teachers are incompetent only works if you assume that there is a demand for college educated workers not being met currently.  The economic evidence for that assumption is weak, however, because while a college wage premium exists, its growth has shrunk dramatically in recent decades (5) and much of that small growth is coming from falling wages for non-college graduates.  It would be worthwhile to question the uneven distribution of college opportunity among racial, ethnic, and economic lines, but it would also be worthwhile to discuss the loss of opportunities for families to move from poverty to the lower middle class (6), losses that keep many more families in poverty than can be lifted by more college degrees.

From that flawed premise, Governor Cuomo and Chancellor Tisch assume that teachers can be accurately measured as ineffective based upon standardized test scores.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Value Added Models (VAMs) are not widely accepted as valid for teacher evaluation, and the evidence against using them that way led the American Statistical Association to issue a statement warning about the limitations of VAMs (7).  Teacher ratings using VAMs can be highly unstable.  Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers notes that teachers who ranked in the top 20% of teachers using value added modeling were likely to shift in subsequent years (8), some even to the lowest quintile and then back to the top, demonstrating how unreliable these methods are.  VAMs take their toll on excellent teachers in excellent schools as well, as demonstrated by the case of the “worst 8th grade math teacher in New York City” in 2012 (9).  This teacher taught at a citywide gifted and talented school, and all of her students passed the challenging Regents algebra exam, but her VAM, based upon an exam testing material her students had learned several years earlier, placed her at the absolute bottom of all 8th grade math teachers.  Hers is not an isolated case, and if Governor Cuomo and Chancellor Tisch have their way, there will be no locally derived measure sufficient to have saved her job.

The tragic impact this will have upon classrooms everywhere should be obvious.  With such dire consequences tied to a single set of standardized examinations and with no other measure mattering, teachers, even in successful schools, will have to teach to the test.  Narrow and relentless test preparation can increase student scores, but it comes at the expense of creativity and subjects not tested.  Research since the passage of No Child Left Behind demonstrates that subjects such as science, social studies, art, music, and physical education have all been reduced because of the consequences attached to low test scores (10).  The Cuomo/Tisch proposals for teacher evaluation will inevitably accelerate this, leading to less time spent in a well rounded curriculum and more time in didactic instruction and seat work.

Meanwhile, the New York Times recognized this week that fiscal inequity is “the central crisis” in New York’s schools, and that Albany is over $5.6 billion dollars short annually of commitments made in 2007 (11).  The New York State School Boards Association estimates that the average district in New York has lost $3.1 million a year in state aid due to the continued use of the gap elimination adjustment (12), and Dr. Baker of Rutgers calculated that New York City alone has lost between $3-4000 per pupil per year through Albany’s refusal to fully fund its own aid formula (13).

In a time when teachers are being told to do far more with their students, Governor Cuomo has consistently starved local districts of funds, and now he and Chancellor Tisch demand that these same teachers produce test results or be fired using statistical models with no foundation in research.

Enough is enough.  The New York State Allies for Public Education has responded to Governor Cuomo and Chancellor Tisch (14), and I implore you to join them in opposing this damaging agenda. It has no basis in fact, it will severely harm all of our schools in every community, and it fully ignores the ongoing failure of Albany to equitably fund our state’s schools.

Our public schools need friends in Albany.  I hope that you will be among them.


Daniel S. Katz, Ph.D.
Director of Secondary Education and Secondary/Special Education, Seton Hall University
Father of Two New York Public School Students


1. Taylor, K. (2014, December 29). Cuomo Vetoes Bill That Would Protect Teachers From Low Ratings. The New York Times. Retrieved January 6, 2015, from

2. Burris, C. (2015, January 1). Teacher Evaluation: Going from Bad to Worse? The Washington Post. Retrieved January 6, 2015, from

3. Burris, C. (2014, April 29). The Scary Way Common Core Test “Cut Scores” Are Selected. The Washington Post. Retrieved January 5, 2015, from

4. United States Census Bureau. (n.d.). Retrieved January 7, 2015, from

5. Shierholz, H., & Mishel, L. (2013, August 21). A Decade of Flat Wages: The Key Barrier to Shared Prosperity and a Rising Middle Class. Retrieved January 7, 2015, from

6. Harris, B., & Kearney, M. (2013, December 4). A Dozen Facts about America’s Struggling Lower-Middle-Class. Retrieved January 7, 2015, from

7. ASA Statement on Using Value-Added Models for Educational Assessment. (2014, April 8). Retrieved January 7, 2015, from

8. Baker, B. (2012, November 17). On the Stability (or not) of Being Irreplaceable. Retrieved January 7, 2015, from

9. Pallas, A. (2012, May 16). Meet the “Worst” 8th Grade Math Teacher in New York City. The Washington Post. Retrieved January 6, 2015, from

10. David, J. (2011). High Stakes Testing Narrows the Curriculum. Educational Leadersip, 68(6), 78-80. Retrieved January 6, 2015, from

11. The Central Crisis in New York Education. (2015, January 4). The New York Times. Retrieved January 6, 2015, from

12. Q&A: New York State’s Gap Elimination Adjustment. (n.d.). Retrieved January 7, 2015, from

13. Baker, B. (2012, December 7). Forget the $300m Deal! Let’s talk $3.4 billion (or more)! Retrieved January 7, 2015, from

14. NYSAPE Response Letter to Governor on Public Education. (2015, January 5). Retrieved January 7, 2015, from


Filed under Activism, New York Board of Regents, politics, schools, Social Justice, teaching, Testing

A New Year’s Resolution for Ed “Reformers” — Remember Our Future Teachers Are In The Schools You Are “Reforming”

About five years back, I got my first impression that our older child might potentially decide to become a teacher.  It was during what I thought was going to be a game of “Hungry Hungry Hippos” which took quite an unexpected turn when our child took all of the marbles, placed them neatly in the center of the game, and told the hippos that they all had to “wait for snack time.”  Over time and with more time in school, other hints have cropped up such as an almost immediate affinity for any teacher at the head of the classroom, a willingness to respect norms of classroom behavior, an almost obsessive love of certain stories and storytelling, a fascination with explaining acquired knowledge to others, giddy excitement at the opportunity to do a presentation for students in a lower grade, and a certain flair for the theatrical.  While this same child is also a bit of a homework resister and not a fan of rote tasks, I can see aspects of a “born teacher” growing up (even though these same traits could apply to other fields).

This lines up well with what we know about how individual students make the decision to become teachers.  It is not a process that begins simply with a sudden decision to teach.  Rather, it unfolds over time during the some 13,000 hours that students spend in contact with classroom teachers from Kindergarten to 12th grade, a period that Dan Lortie called the “apprenticeship of observation” in his 1975 work, Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study.  Those who decide to teach have prolonged and substantial experiences with people practicing their chosen profession over the course of 13 years, and many potential teachers wish to teach because they, themselves, enjoyed being taught.  They found the study of subjects and school itself to be enjoyable.  While many of the ideas about what teaching actually is that are formed during this observational period are simplistic and need to be challenged both in teacher preparation and throughout the career, it remains true that school is the most active recruiter of future teachers.  If my older child does decide to become a teacher, like most others who choose the field, it will be out of a desire to share with future generations of students a love of learning and to make their school experiences enjoyable, joyous, and inspirational as well.

That is, if Governor Andrew Cuomo and Board of Regents Chancellor Dr. Merryl Tisch manage to not ruin New York’s schools first.

That statement is not made even a little bit tongue in cheek because both Governor Cuomo and Dr. Tisch have made it abundantly clear in the past month that their dissatisfaction with New York teacher evaluations will not go unanswered and their likely “solution” will unleash a torrent of perverse incentives upon our schools.  Andrew Cuomo signaled his intentions to make teacher evaluations more “rigorous” just before the election with newspaper interviews and public statements.  The process was set in motion last month with a letter from Jim Malatras, director of state operations, to Dr. Tisch and outgoing New York State Education Department Commissioner Dr. John King.  The letter opens with the now familiar refrain that the new Common Core aligned state examinations are showing far too few of graduating seniors being “college ready” (even though the proficiency levels, which were set with cut scores pinned to the SAT scores of successful college freshmen, slightly exceed the percentage of New Yorkers over 25 with a bachelor’s degree), and then laments about the unacceptability of the situation.  Teacher and blogger Peter Greene nearly dissects the letter in this post, and among its many facets is a clear desire to make it far easier to get rid of teachers and to increase the number of teachers found ineffective and thus able to be removed from the classroom.

On December 29th, Governor Cuomo vetoed a bill his office had originally drafted that would have given teachers a two year grace period from the new exams being used to remove them from the classroom, a move that starkly reversed his pre-election promises to give the new systems more time to be understood.  Questioned on his change of course, the governor raised the irrelevant specter of child abusers remaining in the classroom, “I understand the union’s issue; they don’t want anyone fired,” Cuomo said. “But we have teachers that have been found guilty of sexually abusing students who we can’t get out of the classroom.”  He did not explain himself with any specific cases of teachers actually found guilty of sexual abuse still teaching, nor did he explain how tying more of teachers’ evaluations to student test scores will get abusers out of schools faster, but he did join both Michelle Rhee and Campbell Brown in trying to scare people into endorsing radical changes to teachers’ workplace protections.

Dr. Tisch responded to Mr. Malatras’ letter with her own set of priorities to tie far more of teachers’ evaluations directly to student progress in the state examinations and possibly eliminating local measures of teacher effectiveness altogether.  2013 New York Principal of the Year Carol Burris explains in this article what Dr. Tisch and Governor Cuomo appear to be proposing:

The system she wants to change is one that she created several years ago with former education commissioner John King, which was put into law by the New York Legislature and that was rushed into place by Gov. Andrew Cuomo who denied districts state aid if they did not adopt it. It became mandatory for teachers and principals to be evaluated in part by student standardized test scores.

The short version of what she wants to do now is this—double down on test scores and strip away the power of local school boards to negotiate the majority of the evaluation plan. Tisch would get rid of the locally selected measures of achievement, which now comprise 20 percent of the evaluation, and double the state test score portion, to 40 percent. She also recommends that the score ranges for the observation process be taken out of the hands of local districts, and be determined by Albany instead.

Principal Burris further notes that Dr. Tisch appears intent on ensuring that the predicted growth of students on standardized tests be the supreme measure of teacher effectiveness, suggesting that teachers found ineffective by those measures be found ineffective overall and removed from the classroom after two such ratings.  Such a system would provide no room for a principal to protect a teacher known locally as both effective and valued by the community, as Principal Burris relates in the story of a teacher from Great Neck who would fall victim to Dr. Tisch and Governor Cuomo.  Given the growing understanding that value added measures (VAMs) of teacher effectiveness rely upon tests not designed to detect teacher input, are highly unstable, and cannot account for teacher impact on variability among student scores, it is quite apt that Dr. Audrey Amrein-Beardsley of Arizona State University and a leading researcher on value-added measures, described the proposal as going from “bad to idiotic.”

This aggressive move to double the value added portion of teacher evaluations and to override local measures in favor of standardized tests is bad for teachers, and it is potentially even worse for students.  By doubling the state examination’s role, eliminating locally chosen measures, and potentially overriding any consideration other than the state examination, Dr. Tisch and Governor Cuomo are proposing a system where teachers would face strong incentives to push test preparation into a central role in the curriculum.  Michelle Rhee’s tenure as Chancellor Schools in Washington, D.C. demonstrated the not excusable but entirely predictable results of tying people’s job security to capriciously unstable measures of their effectiveness.  Less drastic, but potentially more widely damaging for more students, is the evidence that raising the stakes on standardized tests to these extremes will result in an even narrower curriculum than under the original No Child Left Behind provisions which have already reduced time spent on non-tested content and increased teacher centered instruction.  In New York State this will be compounded by the constant gaming of state aid from the Cuomo administration that has coincided with increased demands on districts, especially struggling districts, to perform at higher levels.

It takes no powers of prognostication to see where New York schools are headed if the Governor and Chancellor get their way.

John I. Goodlad, a giant in education research in the second half of the 20th century, passed away at the age of 94 on November 29th of last year.  In his 1984 book, A Place Called School, he asked, “Boredom is a disease of epidemic proportions. … Why are our schools not places of joy?”  The Cuomo/Tisch goals for teacher evaluation are almost guaranteed to drive a huge amount of joy right out of our schools alongside art, music, civics, and health.  Teachers and students will have less room to explore, make mistakes, learn from those mistakes, and shared purposes for education outside of test performance will be even further diminished.

And this is where education “reformers” need to think especially carefully because it is not just the schools of today that they are impacting.  Children in Kindergarten today were born in 2009.  Several 100 thousand of them will likely be first year teachers by the year 2031-2032, and the kinds of teachers they will become will be greatly influenced by what school is like for them between now and their graduation from high school as the class of 2027.  Will their schools be places of extreme test preparation, didactic instruction, and a curriculum that is narrowed by the parameters of tests?  Will these future teachers learn that school is supposed to be emulate even a fraction of the stress and narrowness of the Chinese cram school portrayed in this recent New York Times Magazine? Will there be joy?  And if not, what kinds of future teachers will emerge from those schools to teach the generations behind them?

So, education “reformers” — a New Year’s Resolution for you just as America’s teachers are returning for the second half of the year: The next generation of teachers are currently in the schools that you are reforming. Resolve not to wipe out the joy.


Filed under schools, Stories, teacher learning, teaching, Testing

2014 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

Madison Square Garden can seat 20,000 people for a concert. This blog was viewed about 66,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Madison Square Garden, it would take about 3 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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