Monthly Archives: March 2015

Who Will be NYSED’s “Outside Evaluators”?

As more details emerge from the budget agreement hammered out between Assembly and Senate leadership and Governor Andrew Cuomo, more questions seem to need urgent answers.  The Governor got many of the education items that he wanted, especially regarding tenure and teacher evaluations.  His original proposal called for 50% of teacher evaluations to come from standardized testing, 35% from an “outside evaluator,” and only 15% from school principals.  All three of these elements are in the budget framework and potentially the budget bills being debated as the deadline looms, but the final weight of the different items will depend upon work done by the New York State Education Department between now and June 30th.  Regardless of the final weight given to these items, no teacher in the state will be found to be more than “developing” if the test score component is “ineffective,” and all teachers will be evaluated with an outside observer’s input.  Any district that does not submit and receive approval of an evaluation plan using these guidelines will get no increase in state aid for the coming year.

The outside observer component was of special interest to Governor Cuomo who called the current evaluations (that he fought to implement originally) “baloney” and who apparently does not trust that school principals are capable of evaluating their teachers.  Taken out of context, the idea of an additional set of eyes observing teachers using some kind of common metric is intriguing.  Kind of like giving every newborn child in the country a pony.  You like the idea until you start thinking about how it could possibly work.  In the end you realize that the most predictable result is that a lot of people are going to end up with pony poop in their kitchens.

Capital New York reports this morning that a few more details are emerging on the teacher evaluation system:

There will be two required observations, from a teacher’s principal or administrator and an “independent” evaluator, who could be a principal, administrator or “highly effective” teacher from another school or district. As Cuomo originally proposed, a college professor or retired educator could also serve as the independent evaluator. A peer observation will be optional.

The logistics of this will likely prove very daunting.  Who, exactly, will be the “outside evaluators” for all of the schools in New York State?  According to the governor and law makers, they will be a hodge podge of administrators, “highly effective” teachers, college professors, or retirees.  This, at least, is a more qualified proposed group than Pearson Corporation’s essay scorers who were recruited in part by advertising on Craig’s List, but what is the scale of this endeavor?

Classroom observations are currently done by school principals and other related district administrators who are already employed by districts to do a full range of duties, not just teacher evaluations.  There are 4,530 public schools across all of the school districts in New York State (not including charters), and 203,457 classroom teachers who work in those schools (not including paraprofessionals, etc.).  That means that in any given year, roughly 4500 principals are doing some or all of the observations for all of the teachers in their buildings.  This includes scheduling a classroom visit, doing the observation with appropriate notes, optimally having a pre and post observation discussion with the observed teacher, and writing up the evaluation report using the current scoring band system.  Now that work will have to be duplicated over 200,000 times by the outside evaluators who will be approved to observe and to evaluate teachers in the state.

So who will we get to do this?

Will school principals do this for teachers outside their districts? I have my doubts.  Principals are very busy people with a heavy load of time intensive and often politically sensitive work to accomplish.  If a principal is already observing and evaluating all teachers in his or her building, how much time will that person have to travel to other districts and replicate that work for a school system that does not employ him or her full time?

Will “highly effective” teachers do this for teachers outside their own districts?  First, the proposed system is not designed to find very many teachers “highly effective” to begin with, so this will be a limited pool that may change from year to year.  Second, it is highly doubtful that many teachers, regardless of skill level, will line up to undertake this role outside of their own schools.  There is some precedent for experienced and highly regarded teachers taking a role to assist and review peers within their own schools and districts, but such programs are costly and usually require release time from classroom teaching.  Will many of New York’s “highly effective” classroom teachers take on travel and cost their districts substitute teacher costs so they can travel outside of district to evaluate other teachers?  I would not hold my breath waiting for that.

Will college professors do this in addition to their scholarly and teaching pursuits?  For that matter, how many professors are actually qualified to do such work in the state?  The NYSED website says that over 100 university based undergraduate and graduate programs in the state lead to teacher certification, so there may, in fact, be qualified faculty in the state to take on some of the load.  However, recall that roughly 4500 school principals or assistant administrators are responsible for ALL of the teacher evaluations for over 203,000 classroom teachers.  Very few university faculty will likely consider taking on even a partial load of teacher evaluations if it inhibits their ability to teach on campus and to conduct research in their fields.  If the state were considering fostering many more deep university and school district partnerships it might be plausible to use faculty for some of this work, but it is highly unlikely if the call is simply for faculty to take on additional responsibilities that do not serve their professional goals.

Will retired teachers agree to do this work?  I do not know.  Maybe, but I kind of doubt it under current circumstances.  A retired teacher would likely not be qualified to evaluate too many teachers in a single school if it meant observing outside of his or her certification area.  As a teacher education program director, I know many retired teachers who have been willing to give of their time and wisdom to supervise our student teachers.  They do it because they love teaching and want to help mentor new young people into the profession.  Will Governor Cuomo and the NYSED be able to find large numbers of retired teachers who want to do work aimed at REMOVING many more teachers?  I have my doubts.

This will also be an expensive proposition.  Doing all of teacher evaluation twice every year will require a workforce large enough to do that portion of administrators’ work each and every year.  We will need a workforce of at least 1100 evaluators doing at least one evaluation a day during the school year to observe and evaluate every classroom teacher in the state (and, of course, every school day is not a day available for observations), and that assumes a nice, evenly distributed available pool of evaluators matched to teachers.  Unless there is a line item in the budget to pay for all of them, then it will likely be up to the districts to hire evaluators and pay them for their time and travel.  So which art or music teacher will your district have to cut this year to pay for the outside evaluators?

Come to think of it, the pony idea might be more feasible.  And cleaner.


Filed under Funding, New York Board of Regents, politics, schools, teaching, Testing

When “Evaluation” Means “Ruin Teaching”

Observers of the budget negotiation process in Albany, N.Y. had some reasons to be hopeful over the past week.  Various reports indicated that the new Assembly Speaker, Assemblyman Carl Heastie of the Bronx, was holding firm against various education proposals from Governor Andrew Cuomo.  Backed by polling showing the public in New York dead set against the Governor’s proposals by wide margins, it looked like much of the education agenda laid out in the January budget address was at risk.  And early reports from Sunday suggested that the Assembly representatives secured significant increases in education aid and managed to trim a number of the worst proposals from the budget framework.  An aid increase between $1.4-$1.6 billion dollars is in the agreement, and Governor Cuomo’s plans to lift the charter school cap and provide a new tax credit for donations to private schools are both absent from the framework.

Teacher evaluations and tenure, however, remained problematic.  The evaluation agreement still relies upon standardized testing, outside evaluations, and principal evaluations, but at unspecified weightings.  In a tenure process extended to four years, new teachers would have to have three years rated as “effective” to earn tenure, and teachers earning “ineffective” in consecutive years would face an expedited removal process of 90 days.  Reports of these proposals reaching the budget framework obviously concerned those hoping for relief from test based accountability and an evaluation process that recognized the mounting evidence against value-added models of teacher effectiveness based on standardized tests.

Oh, what a difference 12 hours has made.

Not only are the evaluation proposals worse than originally feared, but also the desperately needed increase in school aid is contingent upon cities and towns adopting the evaluation framework and having it approved by Albany before November.  According to the Capital New York report, Deputy Commissioner Ken Wagner explained the following details of the agreed upon evaluation framework in the budget negotiation:

  • Increase in state aid will not happen if a district fails to submit a new evaluation and have it approved by November 15th.
  • Tenure will be extended to a four year process, and a probationary teacher must have an “effective” or better rating for three of those four years.  A rating of “ineffective” in the fourth year will deny tenure.
  • The state Education Department will be tasked with creating a “matrix” based upon test scores, outside evaluators, and principal evaluations; districts may request an additional state examination to be developed by the NYSED, but it is unclear how many districts would want more testing in the current environment.

These conditions were on top of earlier reports that stated that the evaluation system would be designed so that a teacher who is found “ineffective” based on the testing portion of the matrix will not be able to be rated higher than “developing” overall regardless of the observation scores.  In essence, the state Education Department has until June to craft a teacher evaluation system where test scores will govern whether or not a teacher can be rated “effective,” and districts have until November to submit their plans to implement such a system or they will receive none of the budgeted aid increase.

This is not a plan to strengthen teaching.  This is a plan to use test scores to severely curtail the teaching profession in the state of New York.

The reasons not to use value-added models for teacher evaluation are numerous, but the most important ones are:

  1. Teacher input on the differences among student test scores is too low and the models used to locate that input are not reliable enough to be used to evaluate individual teachers.  This is the judgement of the American Statistical Association whose statement on using value-added models makes it clear the models have very large standard errors that make ranking teachers by them unstable.
  2. The instability of VAMs is considerable, and teachers who are deemed “irreplaceable” because of a VAM ranking in one year can be ranked very differently in subsequent years.
  3. Even teachers who are known to be excellent and teach advanced students can be found “ineffective” by VAM ranking.  Working in an excellent school with highly privileged students who score extremely well on tests is not a guarantee of an effective VAM ranking.
  4. Teachers who score well on VAM ranking do not necessarily score well when their students are tested on measures of critical thinking, suggesting that VAMs do a poor job of finding out which teachers are actually promoting meaningful learning with their students.

What possible outcome will be the result of the teacher evaluation proposals in Albany?  For starters, it will not only be much more difficult to obtain tenure, it may become impossible without converting significant portions of the curriculum into test preparation.  If teachers are held to a top ranking of “developing” if the test based portion of the evaluation is “ineffective” then it is distressingly possible that many new teachers will not be able to reach “effective” or better for three out of four years, and it will be through no fault of their own given the problems with VAM derived rankings.  Just as the No Child Left Behind act resulted in a narrowed curriculum due to pressure from high stakes testing, New York is poised to exacerbate that problem, and parents can expect their children to spend fewer hours with social studies, science, art, music, health, and physical education.  The final results of the budget negotiation may not be as bad as Governor Cuomo initially proposed, but there is still a hefty dose of poison in it that threatens to increase the replacement of our schools’ curricula with testing while gaining no actual improvement in the teacher workforce.

Noticeably absent from anyone in Albany who professes to care about the quality of teachers in the Empire State?  Support.  Meaningful professional development and education.  Mentoring and induction proposals.  While there is no “one size fits all” in helping teachers grow in their jobs, there are general principles that matter.  The Albany budget negotiations offer no support for schools to improve their working conditions and general environment, factors that research shows have impact on both teacher satisfaction and student learning independent of demographics of the school.  Supporting principals in being genuine instructional leaders within their schools and providing teachers with real opportunities to collaborate and to lead across experience levels would do far more to substantively improve student achievement than hanging yet one more Sword of Damocles over teachers’ heads.  Doing so would require an actual investment of funds and resources not tied to blackmail demands.

That might be a novel approach for Albany these days, but it is the only one that is right.

New York Assembly members can be found and contacted from this page.  Members of the Senate can be found here.  The New York State Allies for Public Education has a list of the important leaders’ offices here.  Every phone call, email, and Tweet makes a statement.


Filed under Corruption, Funding, NCLB, New York Board of Regents, politics, teacher learning, teaching, Testing

Does Anyone in Education Reform Care If Teaching is a Profession?

Bob Braun, retired veteran reporter for the New jersey Star Ledger and current independent blogger, reported earlier this month that state-appointed Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson announced that Newark teachers seeking graduate education would only get district stipends if they did all of their study at the Relay “Graduate School of Education.”  For those who are unfamiliar, Relay “Graduate School of Education” was singled out as an innovator by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last November, but it is a “Graduate School of Education” that has not a single professor or doctoral level instructor or researcher affiliated with it.  In essence, it is a partnership of charter school chains Uncommon Schools, KIPP, and Achievement First, and it is housed in the Uncommon Schools affiliated North Star Academy.  Relay’s “curriculum” mostly consists of taking the non-certified faculty of the charter schools, giving them computer delivered modules on classroom management (and distributing copies of Teach Like a Champion), and placing them under the auspices of the “no excuses” brand of charter school operation and teachers who already have experience with it.

In the case of North Star Academy in Newark, that means that the teachers who earn certification through Relay “Graduate School of Education” will have “instructors” who meet state requirements for faculty degrees by the school claiming “equivalency” because they are such amazing teachers who get amazing results.  In Relay’s words that is “the equivalent of the leading entrepreneur teaching in MBA programs or the leading writers and artists teaching in MFA programs.”  That’s quite a lofty claim, especially when Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University has demonstrated (repeatedly) that the “awesome” results of North Star are deeply connected to how the school has many fewer students with high needs due to poverty, language, or disabilities issues, how it suspends students at rates much higher than district schools, and how an African American male who enrolls in 5th grade has only a 40% chance to staying at the school until 12th grade.

So, there you have it: a “Graduate School of Education” without a single professor of education, offering teacher certification and degrees to the employees of the charter school in which it is housed, specializing in a curriculum that emphasizes teaching and discipline strategies that successfully drive away more than half the students whose families deliberately sought out the school in the first place. And THIS will be the sole provider of compensated continuing education for all of the teachers in the Newark Public Schools.


What makes the embrace of Relay “Graduate School of Education” in Newark, Trenton, and Washington D.C. so frustrating is that university-based teacher preparation continues to have the standards for our graduates raised by the very same entities that think Relay should be allowed to call itself a graduate school and confer certification and degrees.  Trenton, in particular, is barreling ahead with proposed revisions to teacher certification rules that university-based programs will need to adhere to whether or not there is evidence that they will result in better teachers.  Currently, the young people who wish to become teachers must meet entrance criteria upon matriculating at our school.  Once in they must maintain a minimum GPA to take classes in their education major.  In addition to a full major in education courses, they must have a major in a content field within the College of Arts and Sciences, and they must take additional coursework in a liberal arts core to fulfill both university requirements and state requirements of a minimum number of credits in liberal arts courses.  Our program has extensive field work prior to student teaching that go beyond current state requirements that our students must coordinate with their full time class schedule.  The state also requires that all students seeking certification pass Praxis II examinations.  Various changes to the code requirements are under consideration in Trenton, all of which will make it more difficult for people to seek certification at universities.  Entrance requirements may be increased, or potential students can demonstrate “readiness” to begin their studies with another standardized exam.  The state is considering requiring what would amount to a year-long student teaching experience, and the next version of the state code will almost certainly require teacher candidates to submit a performance assessment to the state which, for all intents and purposes, will require most universities to adopt Pearson’s EdTPA assessment.

All of this probably sounds great if you agree uncritically with self appointed teacher quality watchdog, National Council on Teacher Quality, that declared teacher preparation an “industry of mediocrity” in a report so exhaustively researched that they failed to visit a single university campus and gleaned most of their quality “data” from online catalogs and program descriptions.  For more cautious observers, changes like these might be intriguing, but they come with questions and trade offs.  The biggest question is whether there is any evidence at all that trimming the available corps of potential teachers entering preparation and then holding those who make it in to more rigorous benchmarks will result in better learning in their eventual classrooms.  Critics of traditional teacher preparation often criticize the academic caliber of students entering teacher preparation without noting a very obvious point: if being the best student was absolutely essential to being the best teacher, then the nation’s professoriate would enjoy a much better reputation for teaching skills.

However, even beyond the question of evidence, advocates for increasing requirements on traditional teacher preparation need to acknowledge there are trade offs for increasing standards and requirements this way. Increasing the necessary test scores for entry into a program means that certain populations of students may not be able to even begin teacher preparation and prove their ability in a timely fashion and be effectively locked out of undergraduate study in the field (you can have one guess about from which communities most students who might not meet this hurdle would likely come).  A full year in the classroom for student teaching is an appealing idea  — that comes with massive logistical challenges for students trying to get all of their coursework completed in just 4 years and might make undergraduate preparation unworkable for transfer students and community college graduates.  A state required performance assessment is an idea worth exploring, but with indications that the state is willing to simply farm this out of a major testing corporation at a cost of $300 out of pocket for students, there should be a robust debate on the instrument itself and the ethics of tying up another certification requirement with a corporate revenue stream.

Assuming these issues could be resolved favorably and equitably, there is another issue to consider.  Current conditions and proposed changes all appear aimed at trying to ensure that high caliber students and high caliber students only enter and make it through traditional teacher preparation.  That goal might be defensible, but what, exactly, is Trenton, or any other state capitol for that matter, doing to make teaching an attractive prospect for such high caliber students?  Chris Christie breaking his own pension reform obligations probably isn’t a big incentive.  Despite claims to the contrary, New Jersey teacher salaries are not comparable to other professionals with similar education levels.  In my 22 years in education and higher education, I have yet to meet a single teacher who thinks the distorting stakes attached to current high stakes examinations would be a job perk.  The callous havoc unleashed upon school districts under state control by Trenton appointed superintendents cannot make many of the state’s best and brightest want to work in urban schools.  While Governor Chris Christie has not yet traveled to the New Jersey Education Association annual meeting in Atlantic City to personally beat up a teacher on the boardwalk, he has yelled at several of the state’s teachers in person and accused them of using students “like drug mules” for a Project Democracy assignment near school elections.  All of this is certainly going to entice New Jersey’s best students to accrue debt and work hard to enter a profession held in such esteem by the highest offices in the state:

Governor Chris Christie, Raising Teachers' Public Esteem Again

Governor Chris Christie, Raising Teachers’ Public Esteem Again

The disconnect between allowing Relay “school” to operate while placing these requirements on traditional programs and leveling this much disrespect upon working teachers is staggering.  To a degree, those of us in academic teacher preparation have ourselves to blame for some of this.  As the first wave of the “failing schools narrative” took shape with the release of A Nation at Risk in 1983, numerous reports and proposals were released that focused upon “professionalizing” the field of teaching, conjuring a future where the teacher workforce more closely resembled higher status professions in career trajectory and in clinical preparation.  While the wholesale transformation never happened, the clinical preparation ideology is well entrenched within different teaching standards, accreditation organizations, and among no small share of teacher educators themselves, and David Labaree of Stanford University noted in the early nineties that this focus emphasized teaching as a technical, rational, activity and potentially shut out public input the way medical fields protect their specialized knowledge.  Indeed, by accepting wide swaths of the teaching as technical/rational viewpoint, teacher education has limited the role of powerful visions of teacher development that embrace all of teaching’s complexities and, as Ruth Vinz wrote, begin “to look behind the act, the formula, the answers to the causes, conditions, and contexts.”  We have, in fact, participated in portraying teaching as technical practice whose most important aspects are measurable, so it is little wonder that policy makers are hurling a runaway train through that opening.

However, given the promotion of Relay “Graduate School of Education” and given the continuous disrespect and degradation of working conditions heaped upon teachers, I cannot accept that Trenton is really trying to elevate the profession — in either a technical manner or not.  Taken together, the current and proposed policy environment seems more geared towards greatly decreasing the number of teachers who obtain certificates via traditional teacher preparation while opening the door for many, many more to enter teaching via what amounts to on the job training without ever having studied for the job in the first place.  Trenton, intentionally or not, is engineering a shortage of teachers with credentials from undergraduate study, which will result in more schools like Relay “Graduate School of Education” being “needed” to fill in the gap by certifying their own employees.  Those who survive the “churn and burn” for which charter schools are famous would have state issued credentials to move on to fully public schools.

Or perhaps they won’t.  I find it hard to believe that today’s education “reformers” really believe that teaching is a profession at all.  If they did, the pressure to make certain only top students enter university-based teacher preparation and then to make sure those students have rigorous preparation would be coupled with similar efforts to raise the attractiveness of teaching as a lifelong career.  Instead, reformers act as if they believe that teaching is something you do in your twenties when you are idealistic and want to “give something back”  — and then you move on to a “real career” in some other sector.  If your charter school bosses like you, perhaps they will make you a school principal before you are 30, or they will set you on a path to become Commissioner of Education for the state of New York when you are only 36 years old.  But mostly, they will thank you for a few years of service and see you off to your grown up life outside of education.  After all, reformers’ favorite schools — “no excuses” charters — manage to train their students into “little test taking machines” without very many career teachers, so why should reformers really value teachers who dedicate their entire adult lives to teaching?  That people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s are dedicated and developing professionals who wish to remain in the classroom must seem like an amusing and quaint anachronism to them.

The teachers I know and work with are not laughing.


Filed under Cami Anderson, charter schools, Chris Christie, teacher learning, Testing

Dear NYS Assembly Members: Did We Stutter?

Allies of public education in New York have had some hope that Assembly Democrats were getting the message and were preparing to truly challenge Governor Andrew Cuomo’s appalling education agenda.  Speaker Carl Heastie and his colleagues released a proposal with $830 million more in school aid than the governor’s and with none of the strings attached to the aid that made the governor’s proposals so potentially damaging.  Gone were changes to teacher tenure and dismissal, increases in the state charter school cap, and increased authority for Albany to take over schools, all proposals the governor demands in return for raising school aid by $1 billion.  While the Assembly number is still far short of what is required to fully fund the Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement that Albany has largely ignored since 2007, it was a push in the right direction.  Senate Democrats are reportedly casting their futures away from Governor Cuomo, and Assembly Democrats and Republicans are calling foul on the governor’s stated intention to shunt aside the Assembly if they do not give him exactly what he wants.  Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, having indicted former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, is still sniffing around Albany which cannot be comfortable for a governor who is the top beneficiary of hedge fund money in the state and who assembled half of his campaign cash from fewer that 350 donors.

Even better than the brewing dissatisfaction with Governor Cuomo among law makers, even law makers of his own party, is the evidence that voters are increasingly stacking up against the Governor’s education proposals.   A Quinnipiac University poll released last week showed that Governor Cuomo’s approval rating has fallen 8 points since December, leaving him with a 50% job approval rating.  More telling, however, was that the poll revealed only 28% of respondents approved of the governor’s education plans, and that 55% said they trusted the state teachers union more when it came to improving education in the Empire State.  71% disagreed with tying teacher compensation to student test scores, and 65% said teacher tenure should not be tied to standardized test scores.  Governor Cuomo’s education proposals are so unpopular that his entire approval rating is being dragged down with voter dissatisfaction with those ideas.

Speaker Carl Heastie entered the infamous “three men in a room” negotiations where Albany’s power brokers convene to discuss what will actually be brought for a vote to the Assembly and Senate.  Governor Cuomo was there, as was Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos whose Republican conference won an outright majority in the 2014 election.  In a break with protocol, Senator Jeffrey Klein, whose 5 person independent Democratic conference previously gave Senator Skelos control of the Senate, was involved in the negotiations, infuriating Senate Minority Leader, Democrat Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who contends that if Senator Klein can be there representing 5 members, she should be there to represent 25. With an increasingly defiant membership and with clear evidence of popular agitation against the governor’s education proposals, observers wanted Speaker Heastie to face down Governor Cuomo.  Instead, sources with the Alliance for Quality Education noted that a hastily made statement on Wednesday spoke about a $1.4 billion “compromise” school aid increase, $400 million less than the Assembly’s proposal.

One cannot help but wonder if Governor Cuomo has the firstborn children of all Assembly members locked up in Azkaban or something like that.

With all due respect (and no small portion of dismay), I must exhort Speaker Heastie and his conference to realize that this is not a time for compromise with Governor Cuomo.  There is no “reasonable middle ground” with proposals that are so pernicious to the quality of education in the state.  Accepting a half dose of poison is not a virtue.  It is worthwhile to note the affronts to our public schools from the governor that demand remedy:

Our schools are starved of monetary resources.  Governor Cuomo likes to say that money isn’t an issue because New York spends a lot, but his statement fails to acknowledge a simple truth that education costs what it costs and when you have high concentrations of poverty and other situations that complicate teaching and learning, you will need to spend more even if measurable results are slow to manifest.  Worse, however, is the fact that the governor’s claim is a blatant dodge of the fact that nobody in Albany has ever tried to actually fund the Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement that would have increased Albany’s school aid by $7 billion.  Governor Cuomo’s proposal to increase aid by $1.1 billion is barely 20% of the amount needed to fully fund the CFE settlement, and his promise of a mere $380 million if he does not get his full set of proposed education changes is 7% of what is needed.  In addition to simply ignoring the state’s commitments to increase education aid, the governor and legislators have maintained the Gap Elimination Adjustment that Albany uses to take back budgeted school aid in the event of a shortfall, resulting in billions of dollars more in lost school aid cross the state with cuts in personnel and services in most districts.  In his first year in office, Governor Cuomo pushed for and got a property tax cap, which effectively limits how cities and towns might make up for lost state aid due to the GEA and unfunded CFE obligations.

The governor insists that money is not an issue even as he has strangled our schools at every opportunity.  The Assembly’s proposed increase is a mere down payment on correcting this.

The proposed teacher evaluations have no basis in research and will harm education statewide.  With the exception of a few die hard fans who think if they just wish hard enough, value-added modeling of teacher effectiveness will start to work, there is precious little research saying you can reliably and fairly use statistical modeling based on test scores to evaluate teachers.  Worse, we know that the high stakes testing environment instituted under the No Child Left Behind act has narrowed the curriculum and increased test preparation and given us practically nothing worthwhile in return.  No evidence based or frankly rational person would propose at this point to increase the role of standardized testing in our accountability systems for schools and teachers.

So, naturally, Governor Cuomo wants to increase test scores to a full 50% of teacher evaluations.  He wants a further 35% to be in the hands of “outside evaluators,” leaving a mere 15% for school principals.  The benefits of this approach will be non-existent while the damage is already entirely predictable.  The Assembly cannot compromise on this.

Raising the charter school cap will hurt our public schools.  The original idea behind charter schools was to create small, local, experiments in education that would work with students not well served in their schools and feed lessons learned back into the fully public system to see if they could be scaled.  That quickly morphed into the idea of charters as a form of competition seeking to draw both students and resources out of neighborhood schools, and today, the most prominent charters on the landscape are brands unto themselves.  Those charters are politically and financially connected; in New York their financiers have donated handsomely to the governor who has pretty much adopted their agenda lock, stock, and barrel.  More troubling, however, is the fact that the data shows the barely regulated charter school sector not only fails to feed scalable ideas to local schools, but also it acts parasitically.  In New York, charter schools cream students via lottery processes that put unnecessary barriers between the most disadvantaged students and entry.  Once accepted, parents have to agree to levels of involvement that are pose significant difficulties for families with low wage earning adults, and  behavioral expectations as low as Kindergarten result in students who do not immediately conform being pushed out.

The upshot?  No excuses charter school chains have student populations that are less poor, have many fewer students who are limited English proficient, and have fewer students with disabilities and almost no students with difficult to accommodate disabilities.  Once resource competition is factored in, the conclusion is inescapable:  large numbers of charter schools leave fully public schools with student populations that have much greater needs and many fewer resources available to meet those needs.

If the Assembly “compromises” on the charter school cap, it will guarantee further harm to all students.

Tax giveaways for private and parochial school donations while underfunding state school aid is an unacceptable double blow.  The governor’s proposed “tax credit” for education donations allows wealthy donors to take additional tax breaks on donations to private and parochial schools, and it has been criticized as a “back door voucher” plan that would divert money that might otherwise end up in public schools.  Governor Cuomo has also made the passage of the DREAM Act contingent upon passing the tax credit.  It is a sad state of affairs when a governor who has no intention of fully funding public schools would insist upon additional tax breaks for the extremely wealthy that favor private and parochial schools and would hold up the status of children of undocumented immigrants until those tax breaks are in place.  Unfortunately, at least one former opponent of the tax credits has flipped his position, and it is unclear what will come of these negotiations.

Offering the wealthy additional tax breaks to direct donations into private hands while our public schools remain underfunded by $5.6 billion a year should not even be on the table.

This budget process in Albany is no time for a falsely constructed “middle ground” to prevail in the name of “reasonableness.”  The Assembly’s budget proposal is simply a good down payment on the state’s legal obligations to fund public education at levels sufficient to the task.  Removing Governor Cuomo’s damaging reforms on teacher evaluation and dismissal, state take over of schools, charter schools, and tax giveaways to the wealthy is the only reasonable course of action.  There is no “reasonable compromise” between entirely pernicious and minimally acceptable.  Instead of compromising with the governor, Speaker Heastie should demand:

  • A timetable for full funding of the Campaign For Fiscal Equity settlement, adjusted for inflation, and with additional funds to make up for revenue lost because of the GEA and property tax caps.
  • Full repudiation of the GEA in all future school aid budgets.
  • No increases in the charter school cap unless comprehensive eforms place them on an equal playing field with fully public schools, disallow the practices that result in their very disparate student demographics, and subject them to full transparency in their finances and daily operations, especially their disciplinary practices.
  • No consideration of tax breaks for the wealthy to fund private and parochial schools while our public schools remain financially starved by the school aid budget, the gap elimination adjustment, and the property tax cap.

The Assembly needs to remember that Governor Cuomo enjoys a measly 28% approval of his education agenda.  55% of New Yorkers believe that NYSUT would do a better job of improving our schools.  This is a time to hold firm.

Unless, of course, Governor Cuomo really does have your children in Azkaban.  Trust me; we’d like to know.

Democrats, did He Who Must Not Be Named lock your children up here?

Democrats, did He Who Must Not Be Named lock your children up here?

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Filed under charter schools, Corruption, Funding, Social Justice, Testing, VAMs

Merryl Tisch: Let Them Eat Test Scores

New York State Regents Chancellor Dr. Merryl Tisch addressed the winter institute of the New York State Council of School Superintendents last week.  Her prepared remarks were fairly dry compared to the lively yet facile talk given by keynote speaker Michael Petrilli, President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, who extolled the gathered superintendents to be “cage busting” leaders without mentioning that most of them were being routinely stiffed by Albany’s school aid budget.  Dr. Tisch stuck to three main points: rigor, flexibility, and comparing parents who opt their children out of annual standardized exams to people who refuse to get their children vaccinated.  Oh wait, that last one was folded into her discussion of “the future.”  I’ll get back to that.

Dr. Tisch’s comments on rigor were brief and not exceptionally interesting.  She took issue with an unnamed “national leader” in education who claimed a good school was one “where parents want to send their children, teachers want to teach, and students are engaged.”  According to Dr. Tisch, this missed a necessary component: “…students are challenged by high standards and are supported in their growth by great and caring teachers.”  Neither “high standards” nor “rigor” are actually defined by Dr. Tisch, and I am familiar with entire schools of educational philosophy that assert student engagement actually comes from doing challenging and meaningful work in partnership with teachers who support student growth, so Dr. Tisch’s objection could have been phrased as simple clarification and served a much more useful purpose.

However, I would point out that this focus on “high standards” as a proxy for “rigor” or “engagement” is a patently simplistic.  In my critique of Michael Petrilli’s comments to the same audience of superintendents, I pointed out that the connection between recognized high quality standards and student achievement as measured on assessments like the NAEP is tenuous at best, and it points to a need to actually pay far more attention to the systems that support (or fail to support) teaching than to the documents that serve as a starting place for planning.  Chancellor Tisch, however, has demonstrated little patience for systemic change, and last November announced she would move aggressively by Spring to start closing New York City’s most struggling schools even though Mayor De Blasio had only just announced a three year program to turn around those schools.

Amongst its other, undefined, characteristics, “rigor” simply has no patience.

Dr. Tisch’s remarks quickly pivoted to flexibility, where she was just as vague and rambling as her shorter remarks on vigor had been.  There is some boilerplate acknowledgement that “one size does not fit all,” and a few specific points where the Regents have either asked for more flexibility from the USDOE or delayed high stakes consequences for students.  The superintendents got an acknowledgement that “college readiness is complicated,” and that a single test score cannot capture qualities like “persistence, collaboration, and creativity.”    However, they were assured that the Regents understood this as the Diploma with Advanced Designation “requires persistence through advanced math and science courses, as well as advanced coursework in CTE or World Language or the Arts.”

Well, gosh.

I am baffled by Dr. Tisch’s assessment of “flexibility” that includes no mention of content, pedagogy, differentiation of instruction, reduced class sizes, co-teaching, organizational and leadership changes, or frankly anything else that actually might result in improved teaching reaching more students.  Highlighting a request to the federal government for the “flexibility” to treat English language learners in a sane and humane manner is highlighting a minimal obligation and does not speak to me of a department whose cup is overflowing with much flexibility.  Further, saying an “advanced designation” Regents Diploma “requires persistence” because it requires advanced coursework is mistaking dutifully checking off ticky boxes with a complex and highly variable psychological phenomenon.  “Collaboration and creativity” get stunningly brief mentions but no substance whatsoever.

This thinking is not merely stuck inside the box, but it is holding desperately on to the box and wailing in terror at the thought of being dragged out it.

Dr. Tisch turned to discussion of “the future” with a brief boast that the Board of Regents has proposed a $2 billion increase in school funding which is, in fact, the largest increase proposed by anyone in Albany.  That sum, while substantial and welcome, would be, if it passed, more than $3.5 billion SHORT of the minimum sum necessary for the state to meets its obligations in the 2007 Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement.  I am certain the superintendents were pleased to hear her actually address the issue of foundational aid and the gap elimination adjustment, but they probably would have liked more than a paragraph on it.  She also previewed the Regents’ priorities that the next state Commissioner be someone who is “good at listening, explaining, and adjusting course as warranted” among other qualities.  This is good news in no small part because the outgoing Commissioner of Education, John King Jr., was fundamentally incapable of listening, demonstrated no ability or willingness to explain anything to anyone, and was as willing to “change course” as a cat is willing to be walked on a leash.

Chancellor Tisch reserved the longest portion of her address to a defense of testing and to denouncing the opt out movement.  The defense of annual testing of all children is familiar by now and as wrong as it is when uttered by Secretary of Education Duncan or the editorial board of The New York Times: If we don’t test every child in every school in every grade then kids “disappear.”  As far as monitoring the system overall is concerned, this is inaccurate and representative sampling of student populations in ways that are minimally intrusive are fully capable of telling us how we are doing as a whole.  If Dr. Tisch is worried that individual students “disappear” then our efforts would be far better served working to give all teachers access to more sophisticated and less intrusive formative assessment tools that could actually provide useful feedback during the school year and could help teachers and parents effectively discuss individual students’ progress. The insistence on mass delivered standardized tests attached to high stakes has already done sufficient damage to curriculum breadth and done so little to raise student achievement on stable measures like the NAEP that there is no good argument to maintain it.

The the Chancellor turned to opting out:

If you encourage test refusal, you have made a very powerful statement. We all want the tests to be even better – as short as possible and as closely matched to instruction as possible.  That is a fair critique, and we continue to improve the tests over time.

However, some have a very different goal.  They have said they want to bring down the whole system on which adult accountability is based – even if only a little bit – on evidence of student learning.

I am much less cynical, and I see things very differently.  I believe that test refusal is a terrible mistake because it eliminates important information about how our kids are doing.

Why on earth would you not want to know whether your child is on track for success in the fifth grade or success in college?  Why would you not want to know how your child and your school are doing compared to other children in district, region, and State?  Why would you not want to know the progress of our multi-billion dollar investment in education?  Why would you not want to know whether all students are making progress, not just the lucky few?

I do not pretend that test results are the only way to know, but they are an important piece of information.  They are the only common measure of progress we have.

We are not going to force kids to take tests.  That’s not the New York way.  But, we are going to continue to help students and parents understand that it is a terrible mistake to refuse the right to know.

We don’t refuse to go to the doctor for an annual check-up.  Most of us don’t refuse to get a vaccination.  We should not refuse the test (emphasis mine).

Most of this section of her talk betrays the same staggering lack of imagination that is common among the defenders of annual testing — and it conflates entirely different purposes of assessment.  Keeping tabs on the system and how it functions does not require annual testing of all children to be effective, and keeping tabs of individual children is done with much greater nuance and usefulness by a raft of other tools, both qualitative and quantitative, that teachers can use in ways that actually inform instruction of individual children.  If the Regents want to help teachers develop them, adapt them, and create systems for effectively communicating between school and the home, then that would be a welcomed effort, but Dr. Tisch is mainly saying the critical element here is locating every child’s place on a box and whisker plot while she pays very minor lip service to more useful measures.

The truly telling part, however, is her comparison of refusing to have a child tested with refusing routine medical care and vaccination.  Despite a half-hearted attempt to note that tests are not the only way to know how a child is doing, Dr. Tisch apparently believes that having your child sit for a standardized examination is as important to that child’s long term readiness in school as having your child vaccinated against polio is to keeping your child out of an iron lung. The comparison is actually breathtaking because whereas annual visits to the doctor usually involve a number of different measures of health and keeping a routine vaccination schedule is based upon individual and public health concerns, annual standardized testing provides a generally crude snapshot look at individual children’s academic accomplishments and test refusal has zero impact on any one else’s ability to get an education. “Opting out” of routine medical care is frequently a decision to discount well-established science about personal and communal health benefits.  Opting out of high stakes standardized examinations is a decision based upon — well, I will only speak for myself and my family here.

Absent massive changes, my wife and I intend to opt our oldest child out of New York’s Common Core aligned and Pearson designed examinations.  Our reasons are a bit more involved than Dr. Tisch apparently assumes:

First, the tests are of questionable appropriateness for the age of the children taking them.  Russ Walsh of Rider University in New Jersey examined Pearson’s sample reading passages for the PARCC exams, and he found that by most accepted measures of readability, the material was up to two grade levels above the age of the children taking the exams. While the Common Core exams are meant to be challenging, this is an absurd way to design a mass standardized test and a completely back door way to redefine what is considered average skills.  My family objects to a standardized exam that is designed to flummox students who are not entering the test well above their grade level skills.

Second, the New York State Education Department, led by John King Jr., set the proficiency cut scores in a way that deliberately and predictably places almost 70% of the students in our state as below proficiency and did so with no public explanation as to why.  NYSED pegged cut scores to performance levels roughly indicative or SAT scores that were roughly indicative of first year college “success.”  There has been no public discussion or debate about why this is an appropriate way to define “proficient” for all students, regardless of their college plans, but the result was entirely predictable — the percentage of students reaching “proficient” is slightly larger than the percentage of adults over 24 in New York with a BA.  My family objects to opaque changes in the meaning of test scores.

Third, the lack of explanation of what these scores mean or attempts to justify the way they were set has resulted in a thoroughly dishonest representation of what the scores mean from a multitude of sources, including the media, anti-tenure and pro-charter school advocates, and Governor Cuomo himself. Campbell Brown who has taken the legal battle to strip teachers of tenure protections to New York, repeatedly says the test scores mean students are not reading or doing math “at grade level.”  The charter school advocacy group “Families for Excellent Schools” released a report where it uses the test scores to claim that over 140,000 NYC students are in schools where 90% of the students cannot read or do math at grade level, and this misrepresentation is dutifully repeated in the media. Governor Cuomo repeatedly uses the test scores to insist that there must be many more incompetent teachers in our schools. The combined goal of this rhetoric is obvious: the closing of many more public schools so they can be turned over to charter school operators who appropriate the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement while funneling public money into private hands and increasing segregation of the schools.  My family objects to the cynical and opportunistic manipulation of the test scores that has gone on without a peep of objection or correction from the Board of Regents, the department of education, or the Commissioner.

Fourth, both Dr. Tisch and the governor intend to use the test scores in invalid ways that will objectively harm educational quality in our state. Dr. Tisch, in communications between her office and Governor Cuomo, endorsed raising the percentage of teacher evaluations governed by standardized test scores from 20% to 40%.  Governor Cuomo’s “Opportunity Agenda” calls for raising it to a full 50%.  Both of these ideas are horrible and run contrary to the warnings and advice of actual experts in statistics and evaluation.  Far from improving education in our state, these plans will hasten an already alarming narrowing of the curriculum and give teachers heavy incentives to teach to the test.  Instead of ferreting out bad teachers, this will take random and unpredictable aim at even excellent teachers.  Dr. Tisch thinks people who object to this want to tear down the “adult accountability” system, but it would be more accurate to say we object to that system being built upon a foundation of Grade A Bullplop.  My family does not want our child’s test scores used to further deprofessionalize teachers and harm the curriculum.

Fifth, my child will not gain a blessed damned thing by sitting for hours upon hours in these examinations.  Our oldest child is quite bright as every teacher from pre-K until now has attested.  Our oldest child is also quite creative and can spend hours in inventive and imaginative play.  Our oldest child also does most thinking and reasoning via talk, so work that is entirely done silently at a seat is sometimes a struggle and sometimes torturous.  While it is true that school work (and work work) will eventually necessitate an ability and willingness to work for long stretches in silence, it is also true that our oldest child is a young kid and should fully explore being that first.  Further, future school and work will also necessitate discussion and collaboration, qualities that our standardized exams do not remotely address.  My child needs assessments that demonstrate a full range of strengths and challenges rather than one that will foster a sense of failure and inadequacy and then be used to punish teachers for having a student who thinks orally. My family objects to subjecting our child to frustration that serves no constructive purpose.

I would submit to Dr. Tisch that far from being like refusing routine medical care, our plan to refuse standardized tests is akin to switching medical providers because the last three times you went with a mild fever and headache the doctor’s boss insisted you have a colonoscopy.  And then used the results of that to fire the doctor because you didn’t get better.

If Dr. Tisch is serious that standardized tests are “an important measure” then she should be working to rehabilitate them so they are only being used for what they can actually accomplish.  Testing to monitor how the system is serving students needn’t be disruptive of the entire system.  Assessment to check student progress and communicate that to parents should consist of a broad portfolio of tools for teachers to use in the classroom, and the NYSED would do better to invest in those and in new pathways to communicate to parents and guardians.  Testing to evaluate teachers based upon adequate yearly progress using value added measures should be tossed onto the dung heap of abandoned educational fads in favor of teacher evaluations designed to identify actually beneficial teaching in the classroom.

What does the future hold, Chancellor Tisch?  A school system whose improvement is based upon models of growth and support?  Or lots and lots of tests?

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Filed under Common Core, New York Board of Regents, Pearson, Testing

Pearson’s Intellectual Property — Why Is This Even a Thing?

Bob Braun, a five decade veteran of the Newark Star Ledger and currently an independent blogger, blew up a portion of the internet on Friday by reporting that Pearson, the international education giant responsible for the PARCC examinations currently underway, was “spying” on students’ social media activity.  According to a letter from Watchung Hills Regional High School District Superintendent Elizabeth Jewett, the district test coordinator got a late night phone call from New Jersey DOE after Pearson initiated a “priority one alert” for a breech of test security within the district.  NJDOE informed the district that they believed Pearson’s alert was for a student who took a picture of a test item during testing and posted it to Twitter, and the state suggested that the district should discipline the offending student.  However, upon examination, the district ascertained that a student had tweeted a comment well after testing was over and included no picture at all.  The tweet has since been deleted by the student, but given the 140 character limit on Twitter, it is extremely unlikely that any significant breech of test security could have possibly occurred.  However, the incident revealed that Pearson is monitoring social media for any and all references to the testing going on and is prepared to initiate state level investigations of individual students (how else would NJDOE know the district and student involved?) over very flimsy circumstances.

The story took off very quickly as did Mr. Braun’s accusation that Pearson is “spying” on students’ social media.  The web site was loading very slowly on Friday night likely due to very high traffic, but by later that night it was completely inaccessible and Mr. Braun reported on Facebook that his web host informed him a denial of service attack was underway from an as of yet unidentified sources.  Meanwhile, outraged parents and anti-testing/anti-PARCC sentiments took off in social media:

Let me state that I am unconvinced that “spying” is exactly the correct word over “monitoring.”  The reality is that most corporations of any size are monitoring social media routinely to check on their reputations and potential scandals.  In a world where social word of mouth is genuinely a thing, it makes business sense for them to do so, and social media is not communication in the private space.  If you don’t believe me, wait until you have a bad customer experience with your cable company and then take to Twitter about it — If you don’t get a response from someone in corporate within 24 hours, I owe you a coffee.

However, even from a “monitoring” social media perspective, Pearson’s actions are troubling.  I will concede that the company — and participating PARCC states — have an interest in test security while a standardized test is being deployed (although I also agree with Peter Greene that this level of test security does not bode well for the quality of these exams), but what, exactly, causes Pearson to raise a “priority one alert” and contact a state department of education with sufficient information to locate a district and specific child in question?  What information about a minor’s social media use does Pearson consider its business to pass along to the top education officers in a state?  To what depth does Pearson consider itself able to impose a gag order on other people’s children and use state capitols to enforce it?

Remember — the child in question did not send out a photograph of the exam, merely a single tweet limited to 140 characters AFTER testing for the day was over.  For that, Pearson initiated contact with the NJDOE that sent Trenton thundering into the student’s social media account and alerting district officials when frankly, nothing should have happened at all.  Thankfully, Superintendent Jewett is reasonable and knowledgeable about social media; it could have easily gone south really quickly.

Pearson’s hyperactive attitude towards test security is disturbing not only because of how it is being enacted without concern of proportion, privacy, and the implications of initiating state level investigations into unremarkable student speech.  It is also disturbing because of its connection to Pearson’s larger perspective on its intellectual property and the allowance the public sector gives them in defense of it.  While discussing this on Twitter, I encountered a user who stated that he “applauded” Pearson “defending its intellectual property,” which led me to a single question:

Why is Pearson’s intellectual property even a thing after it delivers a exam to be used for public education?

Considering the following:

  • PARRC was seeded with part of a federal grant worth over $300 million to create examinations for the Common Core State Standards.
  • Pearson was the only bidder for the contract to write the examinations for PARCC.
  • That makes the Pearson written PARCC examinations the only CCSS examination in 12 states and the District of Columbia — Pearson writes CCSS aligned examinations for other states such as New York.
  • Pearson’s contract with New Jersey alone is worth more than $100 million over 4 years.
  • The examination is high stakes – with implications for teacher evaluation and a possible future role in graduation requirements.
  • The examination is used by the state to fulfill federal requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act that all students in all schools between grades 3-8 and in grade 11 be tested in English and Mathematics.  Unlike other standardized examinations students takes, these exams are mandated by state and federal laws.
  • Pearson has no intention of releasing complete copies of this year’s exams even after they have been fully deployed and assessed.

This isn’t even like copyright rules preventing photocopying textbooks — textbooks publishers rightly expect that schools will buy enough copies of their texts for students using them, and they are in direct competition with other potential text providers.  Pearson has an exclusive contract to provide examinations for millions of students (a contract it did not exactly sweat bullets to obtain).  These examinations are used for high stakes purposes.  The examinations fulfill federal mandates for testing in our public schools, and they inform personnel decisions locally, administrative decisions at the district and state levels, and federal actions nationally.  The company is providing a contracted service in our public education system which is, itself, compulsory and, for the time being at least, democratically controlled.

Once they are done writing the exams, why isn’t Pearson required to turn the entire kit and kaboodle over to the state and thus to the voters and tax payers who provide the vast majority of decision making and funding to public education?

I am unaware of a construction company that, after delivering a highway project, reserves lanes for its own use or to pull up and recycle in other projects.  Generally speaking, government buildings do not have entire floors blocked off for use of the contractors who built them.  When Northrop Grumman delivered the USS Ronald Reagan to the Navy, they did not block off sections of the ship that the Navy cannot access.  If such companies create or develop a process of construction or tool for use in construction, they can protect that via patents, but once the contracted item is finished, we generally understand it as belonging to the public who paid for it.

But when it comes to items that are not physical in nature, we accept an arrangement where the public foots enormous costs to only lease the product in question.  Think of electronic voting machines.  I can think of few things as important as protecting public confidence in the integrity of their vote, but companies are not required to make the code for voting machines open source and the public depends upon leaks to inform us of potential security holes in the devices.  Similarly, Pearson is providing a mandated service for our compulsory public education system, and the results of that service will have actual consequences not just for the individual teachers and students involved, but also for the entire system.  Confidence in what they are providing and informed decision making about whether or not what they are providing is desirable requires open and informed discussion and debate — such discussion and debate is impossible while Pearson’s intellectual property is valued more highly than the public purposes it allegedly serves.

In a small way, you cannot even blame Pearson.  They made contracts with states that allowed them to behave this way, and they are a publicly traded company with $17.75 billion in market capital.  Doing everything to maximize their revenue and return to investors is what they do and not a secret.  However, we elect governors who appoint leaders to state education departments; they represent us.  Craven obsequiousness in making contracts worth 100s of millions of taxpayers’ dollars is unnecessary and unacceptable.  It is possible, I suppose, that if our elected leaders and their appointees insisted upon reasonable contracts and the full disclosure of all test materials after the tests are over, then the cost would go up, perhaps to a level states could ill afford and leading to pulling back of the test and punish regime that is currently driving education policy and warping curriculum into test preparation.

Heavens.  That would be terrible.


Filed under Common Core, Corruption, PARCC, Pearson, Testing

Mr. Petrilli Goes to Albany

Michael Petrilli is the President of the conservative education think tank, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.  As such, he is a major voice in support of much of today’s education reform agenda, notably The Common Core State Standards, opposing teacher unions, and the expansion of charter schools and their networks.  It was surprising to some when he turned up as the invited keynote speaker at the New York State Council of School Superintendents Winter Institute.  Mr. Petrilli was himself aware of the potential controversy in his invitation to speak, and abruptly changed the title of his talk from “How to End the Education Reform Wars” to “How to Survive the Education Reform Wars.”  Diane Ravitch of New York University notes the irony of this reframing due to Mr. Petrilli’s prominent role in fomenting the “education reform wars” in the first place (Think of Dick Cheney giving advice on how to survive political and military turmoil in the Middle East).

Interestingly enough, there are some bright spots in Mr. Petrilli’s talk. The most notable was his declaration of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to boost standardized testing to a full 50% of teacher evaluations as “insane” and citing that even other “reform leaders” are moving to using those measures less.  This is a positive statement from someone in Mr. Petrilli’s position, even if he gives it scant time in his speech, and hopefully it based on the body of research that plainly shows how value added measures of teacher effectiveness are pretty much bollocks.  It is also possible that someone sees the growing backlash against testing and the evaluation systems that encourage teaching to the test as threatening the entire reform agenda. Whatever his reason, it was notable that Mr. Petrilli chose this forum to condemn Governor Cuomo’s teacher evaluation plans. Mr. Petrilli also spent time critiquing some of his fellow reform-minded allies:

But on the other side, some of the reformers have equally extreme views. They say that public schools are failing unless each and everyone one of their graduates are college AND career ready. Each and every one.


Keep in mind that our highest performing state, Massachusetts, gets only fifty percent of students to that lofty standard. Should we aim to get more students college and career ready? Absolutely. Do I believe that the Common Core standards, if faithfully implemented, will help? Absolutely. Is a school failing if it doesn’t get every single student to that lofty standard? Of course not

I could spend time quibbling with Mr. Petrilli’s definition of “that lofty standard.” Massachusetts was using the MCAS in 2014, so I assume Mr. Petrilli is referring to the Bay State’s top in the nation National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results – which never mention “college and career readiness” because it is the NAEP, not Common Core.  Massachusetts was top of the nation in the 8th grade NAEP for 2013 with 48% of students reaching proficient and advanced in reading and 55% in mathematics — proficient represents solid academic performance and an ability to apply that knowledge in real world, analytic situations, so that is a heck on an accomplishment.  Given that 39.4% of Massachusetts adults over the age of 25 have a BA and that the Bay State economy seems to be picking up real momentum, it seems Massachusetts is poised to be a net exporter of college educated adults. Regardless, Mr. Petrilli is correct to note that reformers clinging to some kind of magical thinking that Common Core and a lofty enough set of expectations will get all kids ready to attend college are not playing in a world that resembles reality, so a sincere thanks for that.

Much of the rest of his address is complete bollocks, however.

Peter Greene does his usual indispensable review of the whole talk here, where he does an especially good job pointing out how Mr. Petrilli sets up some nice fantasy anti-reform activists who want to believe that poor kids cannot learn:

Petrilli uses the new fave talking point for reformsters in which he characterizes the pro-public-education folks (and name checks Diane Ravitch) as those who have given up, think that education is hopeless in the face of poverty, believe that schools cannot do any better. This is the new improved straw man version of dismissing reform critics because they “use poverty as an excuse.” It’s a snappy rhetorical point, but it’s a lie, a deliberate misreading of what folks in the pro-public-ed camp are saying.

It’s a particularly galling point coming from the man who has explained on more than one platform that the proper role of charters is to rescue those students who are deserving, snatching them from the midst of the undeserving mob. It’s galling from charter fans in general, as their whole point is that public schools are hopeless and we should not waste another cent trying to help them do better.

But it’s also insulting to the millions of teachers who are in the classroom day after day, doing the best they can with the resources they have. Hey, teachers– if you’re not succeeding with all of your students, it has nothing to do with obstacles and challenges in your path. You just don’t believe enough.

I can’t improve on that except to affirm how utterly disingenuous it is to take people who are trying to point out that our most most struggling schools typically try to work with populations that have heavy concentrations of poverty and that we have long known the lasting impacts of poverty and to portray that as saying “there is nothing schools can do.” Let’s clear this up:  Mr. Petrilli, when I and other critics of your version of education reform raise the issue of poverty and its demonstrable impact on children and the schools they attend, we do not do so to say that there is nothing that can be done.  We do so because if we as a society are truly concerned about whether a child in poverty can do her very best in school, then perhaps we should be concerned about whether or not she can EAT TODAY.  That means giving her school a lot more to work with in terms of special resources and staff, and that means the rest of society stepping up and taking responsibility for alleviating the deprivations she faces outside of school as well.  That’s why we resist your brand of “reform,” Mr. Petrilli.  It has to do with facts, not ideology.

Mr. Petrilli insists that Common Core is necessary because our standards were a joke before them:

Let me say a few words about this. As many of you know, I’m one of the strongest supporters of the Common Core out there. I’m the conservative they send to red states to testify and urge other Republicans not to drop these standards. And I support these standards because they are pegged to success for our young people—success in college or a good paying job.

That’s important because our earlier standards were set so low that they were sending false signals to kids and to parents that all was well, when it wasn’t. That kids were on track, when they weren’t. You know this. Those old standards and tests were set at such a low level that you could be reading or doing math at the 20th or 30th percentile nationally and be considered proficient.

The assertion that Common Core is “pegged to success” in terms of college and career readiness is one of the articles of faith among reformers, but it is also entirely unproven in practice as of today, and the opaque nature of their development does not provide evidence of how that confidence came about.  The statement also belies an odd faith in the seamlessness from standards to practice to achievement that is not so apparent in the world of education.  Consider Massachusetts again.  The top performing state on the 2013 NAEP was also recognized as having very high quality state standards before adopting the Common Core.  Now consider Texas.  According to Mr. Petrilli’s own organization, the Texas English standards from 2008 are of higher quality that the Common Core standards.  Yet in the 2013 NAEP, Texas, having remained with its own standards, was only above 7 other states in 8th grade reading.  Texas has made some improvement since the adoption of those standards, but it has hardly been dramatic.  Perhaps the teachers of Texas simply don’t believe enough, but my suspicion is that it takes a lot more than “high quality standards” to leverage change.

Mr. Petrilli pivoted his talk with a strangely insulting set of points for his audience:

But let me level with you: We’re frustrated with you too. For sure, we understand that your hands are often tied by union contracts, state regulations, and more. I’ll get to that in a bit. But we do see examples of areas where you are not taking advantage of the authority you DO have to do right by kids. My friend Rick Hess writes about Cage Busting Leaders. Some of those cages are of your own design.

The number-one example, of course, is around teacher evaluations. This whole national push for teacher evaluations came about because research showed that the vast majority of teachers were being given glowing evaluations. And it was clear that in many schools, those evaluations were not being treated seriously. Principals did a couple of fly-by observations a year, and that was it. It wasn’t enough to provide good feedback to teachers, and it sure wasn’t enough to identify teachers who might need to be encouraged to leave the classroom.

It is a fascinating approach to speak to an audience and tell them that they are essentially not doing their jobs, but perhaps the Superintendents were encouraged with the following words of sympathy:

Now, I have more sympathy for you than most reformers. As I see it, you’d have to be crazy as a principal in New York State to give your teachers bad evaluations. Because in New York State, it’s damn near impossible to actually fire a teacher. So if that’s the case, why make an enemy by giving a bad evaluation? It’s better to work the system to send that teacher somewhere else. Until and unless lawmakers here in Albany decide they want to make it significantly easier to fire a teacher, they better get used to seeing reports of lots of glowing evaluations.

Isn’t it nifty how this works out?  Superintendents and principals are not doing their jobs at all, but they get at least a little tea and sympathy because, after all, they may not be lazy — they may just be fearful of the mess that might happen if they did their jobs!


Let’s look at the claim that it is “impossible” to fire a teacher.  It is a common claim, one that anti-tenure activists like Campbell Brown like to repeat as if they are reading from the Gospel, but it is really true?  If your standard is the basic at will employment agreement that corporate managers and CEOs enjoy, then I suppose it is true.  Instead of simply calling an employee into the office and telling her to pack up her desk because security is escorting her off the property in ten minutes, school administrators actually have to employ a process and demonstrate cause to remove a tenured teacher.  That may take time and some effort, but it is hardly impossible.  Dr. Alyssa Hadley Dunn of Michigan State University examined Campbell Brown’s favorite claim that it takes over two calendar years to remove a tenured teacher in New York and found it wanting:

This statistic, which Ms. Brown peppers in all of her speeches, appears to be from a research brief of the New York State School Boards Association. This brief was based on the results of a self-report survey to which only 59% of districts responded and in which New York City (the largest district) was not even included. Jessica Glazer has written about whether or not the numbers are even accurate, and Bruce Baker points out, importantly, that quality may vary significantly between districts. Further, since the data was collected, after 2008, the state made efforts to reform tenure laws, changing the minimum years from two to three. Now, according to one report, only a slim majority of teachers receive tenure on the first attempt, and, in 2013, disciplinary cases took, on average, only 177 days statewide.

Considering the importance of teacher tenure for actually effective teachers — such as protecting them so they can speak out on behalf of their students and colleagues as documented in the link — the fact that removal takes effort should not be a point of contention, but Mr. Petrilli, and others like him, suffer from CEO envy in these matters.  CEOs have enormous power within the corporate world, overseen only by a board of directors.  So if you are the CEO of Apple, you can order everyone to focus like a laser on a handheld computer and release it even if the handwriting recognition software is not ready for prime time.  Then if you are the former CEO getting his job back, you can kill the whole project even though it has been greatly improved and will eventually provide you with the technology that will take over the phone market.  You can do all of this because you are the CEO and disruption by your will is in your tool kit.  School leaders work within organizations that are best characterized as “loosely coupled” which means that although organized hierarchically, schools allow significant autonomy among individuals, allow locally derived adaptations for changing conditions, and can have smaller parts of the system break down without damaging the entire system.  Leaders within such systems need different skill sets than corporate leaders, and simply imploring them to more aggressively remove ineffective probationary teachers, as Mr. Petrilli, does is insufficient to the task of being a real instructional leader within a school system, a role that requires significant rethinking of the role of principal from administrator to staff developer with resources coordinated and time allotted across the entire system.  “Fire them while they are young” just doesn’t cut it.

But is Mr. Petrilli’s contention even true?  Is it true that principals and superintendents don’t give tough evaluations because they know they cannot remove an ineffective teachers?  There’s a possible explanation that is left entirely unexplored in his talk: namely, the scoring bands for teacher evaluation in New York were set so that teachers who did not score as ineffective in any category could still be labeled as ineffective.  Principal Carol Burris explains that here as well as the different system that was imposed upon New York City by then Commissioner John King.  In the 2011-2013 scoring bands, it was possible for a teacher to get a low “developing” mark from the state test and the locally selected test measure, get 58 out of 60 points on the “other measures” and be labeled “ineffective.”  Not one score band in the ineffective range, but ineffective regardless.

So is it possible that principals and superintendents have not been vigorous enough in teacher evaluations because they dread the work of trying to remove an ineffective teacher as Mr. Petrilli contends?  Possibly – if you have a low opinion of their work ethic and professional pride.  It is equally possible that principals and superintendents know that the score bands are set up in a way that teachers can be found ineffective without having a single measure in a range that is labeled ineffective.  Cognizance of that inherent unfairness could easily skew observation scores upwards, especially for school leaders who have multiple and diverse other tasks to attend to.

Mr Petrilli’s biggest whopper comes near the end when he laments the assumed sea of red tape that holds back schools and claims the success of charter schools is attributable to their freedom from such requirements.  Then he tells superintendents to demand the same “freedom”:

The notion with charter schools is that the only way to cut this Gordian Knot is to start fresh, to opt out of the regulatory framework, and the union contract framework, entirely. And create a whole new paradigm.

And if you are frustrated by comparisons between your schools—your over regulated, hyper unionized schools,and the autonomous charter sector—you are right to be. But here’s my advice: Don’t fight em, join em. Ask for similar freedoms. Ask for similar autonomies. And if that fails, use chartering to advance your own goals. Stop fighting with one hand tied behind your back—tied up with red tape. Cut the ties. Come out swinging.

Here is CEO envy all over again, and it is wrong because someone’s (presumably, Petrilli’s) “red tape” is another person’s “Free And Appropriate Public Education” — just one of the many regulations that the “no excuses” brands of charter schools routinely opt themselves out of in pursuit of higher test scores.  Here we have Michael Petrilli, who has never been a teacher, a school administrator, or a qualified researcher, advising the superintendents of New York to push to free themselves from regulatory requirements that were put in place to protect vulnerable children in the first place.  And he tells them to seek this “freedom” to emulate a sector that he has openly and repeatedly said is right to restrict itself to “the strivers” and to rid itself of students who do not measure up.  We know what this looks like in practice — a Kindergarten child with manageable attention deficit throwing up in the morning because he is afraid he will be “fired” from school. 

Even without the emotional and ethical argument, we also know that charters as they are managed now in many urban areas make the local school system worse off for everyone else.  After the charter schools compete for space and other resources and after they effectively skim off the easiest to educate children and push out the ones who are not, you have district schools that have no say in how charters are managed and are left with demographics that are more disadvantaged, more disabled, and less able to speak English, all of whom need many more services from diminished remaining resources.

For Mr. Petrilli to come out and exhort his audience to demand allowance to act similarly and then to advocate, as he did on Twitter, that district public schools should be allowed to push out students as they see fit, is asking for a school system that is pathologically unwilling to work with anyone it doesn’t want to:

It would one thing for charter advocates like Mr. Petrilli to say the cream skimming is okay if he were to similarly advocate that the district public schools, working with the much higher needs students, had resources poured into them so they could accomplish the mission of educating the most needy.  Smaller class sizes, co-teaching, increased numbers of paraprofessionals, increased certified special education teachers, language programs, speech and physical therapy, social workers, health and nutrition programs, renovated facilities — tellingly, none of this made the list of things Mr. Petrilli told superintendents should go to bat for.

Because something else was missing from the speech — money.  Michael Petrilli was talking to a gathering of New York superintendents, a group of school system administrators who have seen their budgets plummet due to a state property tax cap and budget games in Albany that have cost the AVERAGE school district millions of dollars a year in state aid.  I do not know if the Superintendent of Hempstead was in the audience, but if she was, I do wonder if she feels like she needs to be a “cage busting” leader more than she needs Albany to not short her school district MORE THAN $6400 PER CHILD THIS YEAR.  It is something of a sick joke to talk to a group of district leaders about how to “survive the education reform wars” and offer no insight into how to fight to keep their school aid from being raided year after tedious year.  It is not remotely funny to advocate that they push for policies that, objectively, would require huge increases in local and state spending to make happen in a thoughtful and remotely helpful way and to still remain entirely mum about money.

I am sure Mr. Petrilli got polite applause. 

I would not be surprised if he got a significant number of eye rolls.