Monthly Archives: May 2015

Dear Hillary – 2015 Version

Dear Secretary Clinton:

You have been a declared candidate for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States since April of this year. While your campaign for the nomination is quite new, many in the press treat your eventual victory as fait accompli, and have turned their attention to the growing Smorgasbord of candidates on the Republican side of the contest. Given the nature of Presidential politics today, this is probably good news for you as potential rivals for the Oval Office will now spend months of news cycles savaging each other and weakening the eventual Republican nominee.

It also gives you time to hone positions and messages while the national press endlessly opines on which Republican can win over the Tea Party and major donors simultaneously. I have a few modest proposals on education.

You enter this contest with some disadvantages on national education policy.  Having been a national figure for nearly a quarter century, you have spoken often, and often quite well, on the promise of public education and how we should support it.  However, your public career is also closely associated with neoliberal influences within the Democratic Party, and in education policy, that influence is typified by the John Podesta founded Center for American Progress which is a proponent of standards, standardized testing, evaluating teachers via standardized tests, expanding charter schools that take public money but are privately managed, and eliminating or significantly changing teacher workplace protections. Lately, a number of people have been circulating the 18 page missive you were sent in 1992 by Marc S. Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy which details a comprehensive and far more centrally controlled vision of education with now familiar emphasis on standards creating a “seamless system of unending skill development.”  Dubbed the “Dear Hillary” letter, Mr. Tucker’s vision is seen by many as a precursor of the current system of education “reform” which uses standards and testing to reduce variance among states, constantly talks about “college and career readiness” and making students meet nationally derived standards, holds teachers “accountable” to all students meeting standards, and reduces traditional governance and union influence to create “choice”.

Whether or not Mr. Tucker’s letter actually began the process to the 2015 school reform landscape or not isn’t germane to the fact that many connect his letter to you and ascribe its agenda to your candidacy.  This may be quite unfair, but it is also a reality in the national school reform debate into which you have entered as a candidate.  You must understand the degree to which we face a crisis in confidence among teachers and parents that has been growing for the past 14 years and which shows no signs of dying down by the general election campaign next year.  After years of struggling with the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, teachers had hoped that President Obama’s campaign rhetoric would result in recognition that unrealistic expectations and heavy emphasis on test-based accountability had damaged schools and teaching.  Instead, the new administration used the promise of funding and of waivers from NCLB’s most punishing provisions to rush the Common Core standards into adoption across the country and, far from reducing the influence of standardized, to use tests to evaluate teachers.  At the same time, a coordinated effort is underway across the country to challenge teachers’ workplace protections and to use campaign donations to influence politicians to join the fight against teachers’ unions and against traditional public schools.

Madame Secretary, you enter the campaign for the Presidency at a time when teacher morale has dropped precipitously, with those saying they are “highly satisfied” at work falling by 30 percentage points in the last six years.  The federal role in education will play a part in the upcoming election, and an unusual mix of our body politic opposes various aspects of that role for various reasons.  It would be a grievous mistake on your part to misread the criticism as solely the work of right wing activists or, as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has done, the province of suburbanite mothers offended by the notion that their children are not brilliant. Among those opposed to or concerned with the past decade and a half of education reform are scholars warning that key elements of the reform agenda have little basis in research, parental and advocacy groups concerned about the detrimental influence of reform on curriculum, schools, and children, and a slowly increasing presence in civil rights and community justice groups recognizing that reform is tearing the heart out of communities and threatening equity without involving stakeholders in the process at all.

Your path to the nomination and to the Presidency probably does not require you to listen to these constituencies because deeply connected and extremely influential donors are tied to the reform movement, but your ability, if elected, to hit a “reset” button on our national education debate and to set a course forward that honors all stakeholders in our national education commons does require it. With respect, I would like to offer my own set of priorities for you to consider as you seek office, and I promise that it is briefer than Mr. Tucker’s.

Let states stay or go from the Common Core State Standards as they see fit.  Recently, you spoke with some dismay about how a “bipartisan” agreement to raise educational standards has now become political.  That take on the CCSS situation assumes that there was nothing political about the standards to begin with, and there I must disagree.  It is true that the National Governors Association agreed to take on the proposal to write a set of common standards and did so without falling along typical party lines.  But there are several aspects about the CCSS that were political from the very beginning and which are not made apolitical simply because they were not partisan.  First, the assumption that American education is in deep crisis and that we are “falling behind” other nations is a deeply political assumption that rests on a significant cherry picking of the available data and by concentrating on the worst possible reading of that data.  The “failure narrative” has been a central player in our education debate since the Reagan Administration released A Nation at Risk in 1983, but its underlying assumptions have been problematic from the beginning.  David Berliner and Gene Glass make it clear that the failure narrative is a deliberate lie that proposes that our entire school system is in crisis when when we have very specific problems with some of our schools and those problems are tightly coupled with concentrated poverty in communities.  The premise that we MUST have common standards if we are to not “fall behind” other nations is a premise steeped in a political agenda to require a massive change in how we administer one of the core institutions of our democracy.

Further, while the organizations that initiated the CCSS may have cut across political lines, politics at the federal level was essential to having 43 states and the District of Columbia adopt them.  When the Obama administration came into office, the CCSS project, already enjoying massive support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, received boosts from the Race to the Top program and offers of waivers from certain NCLB provisions.  How far would the Common Core State Standards have gone without these federal enticements? We will never know, but it is safe to assume that their adoption was given considerable velocity by these incentives which is staggering when you realize that the standards were proposed, allegedly researched, written, signed off on by various committees, and adopted in over 40 states in less than 4 years.  Advertising and political campaigns move that quickly — careful, deliberate, research-based overhauls to K-12 standards in English and mathematics do not, especially if they follow widely accepted processes for including a wide array of stakeholders and maximizing transparency.

How free are states to leave the the “state led” Common Core effort?  That’s an open question. Virginia, for example, never adopted the CCSS, and they have an NCLB waiver from Secretary Duncan’s DOE.  Washington state, however, lost its waiver for not being quick enough to implement another element of education reform — adding student growth on standardized tests to its teacher evaluation system.  How would the current USDOE respond to a state trying to back out of the Common Core?  I do not know, but I do know that if the standards have actual educative value, and many people sincerely believe that they do, then the federal leverage that has been used to put them in place, needs to be removed so that proponents and opponents can have the open and honest debate about common standards that never took place.  States should develop plans for careful implementation and development if they want to stay on board, and time must be given for the development of quality material aligned with the standards.  And states should be feel free to drop the CCSS and take a “wait and see” approach to study how other states’ implementation efforts are going.

But if you, as a candidate, like what you see in the Common Core, then your best way to get them unpoliticized is to recognize the politics that went into their development and adoption, and to give states absolute assurance that they can take their time in making them work or abandon them without consequence.

Reject teacher evaluations based upon student growth models.  The appeal of student growth models is obvious.  Using student testing data, growth models promise to free teacher evaluation from excessive subjectivity and local politics by using sophisticated statistical tools to isolate teachers’ input into the variation among student scores and properly rank teachers by their effectiveness.  Such a tool promises to leverage the power of data into making certain adults are accountable for the most crucial work of school — helping students reach their full potential.

Unfortunately, they don’t work.

Value added models (VAMs) and other related growth models are simply not up to the task of taking a snapshot of student performance in one year of school, completely isolating the teacher impact upon test scores, and producing a stable and reliable measure of teacher effectiveness.  The research body on this is growing and crystal clear: we should not be doing this, and by doing this we are only making it impossible for a teacher with an eye for survival to not teach to the test.

Despite this, Secretary Duncan has not only continued to support growth measures in teacher evaluation, he has proposed measuring the “effectiveness” of teacher preparation programs by the value added measures of their graduates.  In New York State, Governor Andrew Cuomo pushed for and got a revised teacher evaluation system where half of teacher effectiveness ratings are tied to standardized test scores.

If you want to restore balance and sanity to the education reform debate, you will pledge to appoint a Department of Education that backs off of growth measures and actually listens to the evidence that we do not have either the tests or the statistical tools to make this work, and that the consequences in the form of narrowed curricula and increasing the pressure associated with testing are unacceptable.

Praise innovation in education — but only from people telling the truth. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel praised the Noble Charter School network for having found the “secret sauce” for improving academic performance — based on the schools’ test scores.  It turns out that an ingredient in that sauce is a system of cash fines for even small infractions to its strict disciplinary code, a practice that landed one unemployed single mother with a bill for $3000.

When the idea of a charter schools was first proposed to provide a system of small and innovative schools who would work with the most difficult children and feed their ideas to the system as a whole, it is doubtful that anyone expected schools that would turn its disciplinary code into a revenue stream, but the charter sector is sadly rife with schools claiming superior results while engaging in deceptive practices.  The “no excuses” brand of charters, to which Noble belongs, is especially guilty of this as they continuously compare their test scores to fully public schools in their districts, but then take their population of students, already skimmed via complex application processes for their lotteries, and further trim them with practices aimed at driving away students whose needs they refuse to accommodate.  Matthew Sprowal of New York City found this out when he won a lottery seat at Eva Mokowitz’s Success Academy but was quickly subjected to disciplinary practices that had the Kindergartener regularly throwing up and asking his mother if he would be “fired” from school.  His is not an isolated case in the network that is known for extremely strict discipline and an emphasis on test preparation that can overwhelm the rest of the curriculum.  They are hardly alone in this.  Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University took a humorous look at the Uncommon Network school in Newark, New Jersey, North Star Academy, and he found that their claims of getting superior results from the same population of children as the district is completely deceptive.  It turns out that North Star has many fewer students who qualify for free lunch, they have half the population of students with disabilities and those they have are almost all low cost – with zero students with autism, emotional disturbance, or cognitive disabilities.  Even more shocking are the indications that those numbers may not simply represent a population that entered the lottery for admission, but it may be the result of selective attrition.  Historically, 50% of North Star student cohorts leave the school between 5th and 12th grade, and that goes up to 60% for African American boys in the school.

You must remember that these are students whose families sought out the school in the first place.

While a few advocates of the no excuses brand of schools admit that this kind of attrition is a feature rather than a bug, the general response from the sector is denial and silence.  This is not innovation.  It is a) the conflation of test scores with actual achievement and learning; b) the use of unethical disciplinary practices to induce an already self selected population to further self select; c) a distorted curriculum emphasizing test scores and specific training for standardized test.  It is likely that many of the surviving students do get a good education overall, but their school leaders should not try to favorably compare themselves to district schools, especially when their model of schooling requires them to have full public schools where students they drive away end up.  For an added insight, consider how KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg struggled to find an adequate reason why he doesn’t send his own children to the school network that he established.

With over 6000 charter schools across the country, I am sure your campaign can find ones that genuinely innovate on behalf of children who have not been well served by their district schools and which take seriously the idea that charter schools are there to demonstrate innovative practices. (Dr. Julian Vasquez-Heilig has noted Making Waves and University of Texas Elementary as examples). Those schools do not have massive public relations campaigns, but if you are looking to praise schools outside the mainstream system, you should find them, and avoid the “no excuses” brands that routinely lie about their practices and the meaning of their results.

Money matters.  Governor Andrew Cuomo likes to opine that money is not an issue in New York State because of the size of the education budget.  That’s easy for him to say as his term in office has been an ongoing assault on state aid to education and a steadfast refusal to fund the Campaign for Fiscal Settlement settlement from 2007.  Governor Cuomo, who has never proposed an education budget that comes close to finding the still missing education aid, put in a cap on property taxes that limits municipalities from increasing local revenue, and continues to use the Gap Elimination Adjustment to remove promised aid to localities to the tune of nearly $3.1 million per district per year.  The resulting financial shenanigans leave many districts shorted thousands of dollars per pupil per year below the state’s already inadequate and unequal funding promises.

While the federal government funds only a small percent of local educational expenditures, there are promises you can make that will help districts cope with the fact that we fund education in this country by local property values and this takes a significant toll upon school districts with higher concentrations of poverty and devalued property. For example, when the federal government passed P.L. 94-142 in 1975, Congress promised that it would provide money that would cover 40% of the costs to districts for giving full services to children with disabilities.  Districts, schools, and teachers rose to that challenge and the percentage of children receiving special education services rose from 4.3% of students in the 1960s to 11.4% in 1989.  Congress did not, and it has never funded the federal disability law above 20% of costs to districts.

Our schools are estimated to need over $197 billion in infrastructure repairs and investments according to a study by the Institute of Education Sciences, and that figure is estimated at over $254 billion by the American Federation of Teachers.  The federal government provides grants for schools that offer wraparound services, a continuum of community based services frequently lacking in communities with deep poverty.  Such grants could be expanded and more funding added to Title I in order to support such schools and the efforts they undertake for our least served students.  Schools need additional funding to work on class size reductions which have strong support as means to improve academic achievement especially among disadvantaged students.  In fact, most changes that would significantly improve education for the disadvantaged students in our schools require funding increases, but most state are still funding education below 2008 levels.

President Obama used promises of federal funding to wedge in highly distorting education policies.  You should promise education funding to build capacity and growth.

Your money matters too.  In an age when unprecedented money is flowing into politics at every level, it is hard for any candidate to expressly shut off any source of cash, but if you want to be a candidate for public education and the children served by it, you must.  Consider the case of “Democrats for Education Reform (DFER)” and its companion organization “Education Reform Now (ERN).”  While these organizations influence and donate to Democratic candidates for office, both their funding and their intent are not rooted in the Democratic Party.  One of DFER’s principal founders is hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson, who described the rationale for his group’s name this way:

The real problem, politically, was not the Republican party, it was the Democratic party. So it dawned on us, over the course of six months or a year, that it had to be an inside job. The main obstacle to education reform was moving the Democratic party, and it had to be Democrats who did it, it had to be an inside job. So that was the thesis behind the organization. And the name – and the name was critical – we get a lot of flack for the name. You know, “Why are you Democrats for education reform? That’s very exclusionary. I mean, certainly there are Republicans in favor of education reform.” And we said, “We agree.” In fact, our natural allies, in many cases, are Republicans on this crusade, but the problem is not Republicans. We don’t need to convert the Republican party to our point of view…

DFER and ERN receive massive financial support from a cast of characters who are not traditional backers of Democrats: The Walton Family Foundation, Rupert Murdoch, Rex Sinquefield.  The causes they support include Koch funded campaigns against unions, vouchers, and privatization of education via the growth of privately managed charter school chains. If you want to see the influence of this kind of funding, look no further than Andrew Cuomo, who has gotten over $65,000 from ERN since 2010 and whose devotion to the cycle of using test scores as the only measure that matters, labeling schools as failing, closing schools, and turning them over to privately managed charters is without equal. This is hardly isolated to DFER,as a range of organizations funded by billionaires seek heavy influence over educational policy in New York. This fundamentally anti-democratic campaign by the hedge fund sector is not based on philanthropy as advertised as they have been figuring out ways to monetize support for charter schools for some time now, and this phenomenon is rampant in the charter sector nationwide.  Other aspects of today’s reforms generate massive revenue streams for publishing and testing giants like Pearson, and Rupert Murdoch himself called K-12 education a “$500 billion sector…that is waiting desperately to be transformed…” by technology.

These potential donors to your campaign are not in education reform because they primarily want to do good.  They are in it because they want to do well, and if you take their cash, you will be as bought and as compromised as Andrew Cuomo, Rahm Emanual, and President Obama.  You are perhaps better situated than any candidate in memory to forgo any single source of funding in favor of taking a stand.

Stand with our teachers. While the emphasis on testing and evaluating teachers with testing threatens our national teaching corps, a parallel campaign exists to remove teachers of the job protections and make it vastly easy to fire them at will. This campaign relies upon misunderstanding of what tenure is and expressly misrepresents the facts to the national media.  Worse, it thoroughly misses a far greater problem in our schools that serve high concentrations of disadvantaged students.  Far from being staffed with stereotypically jaded veterans uninterested in doing their jobs, our schools with high concentrations of children in poverty, are far more likely to have high numbers of first year teachers when compared to the suburban counterparts. Research shows that young teachers who leave such schools most frequently cite aspects of their working conditions – lack of support from administration, insufficient resources, no time to collaborate with co-workers – as the reasons why they leave.

Removing tenure from those teachers does absolutely nothing to stabilize the faculty in our most difficult schools, and it largely guarantees that such schools will continue to have a temporary workforce whose members never reach their full effectiveness on the job.  Further, removal of tenure protection disallows teachers who need to confront their administration on behalf of their students from doing so; it destroys teachers’ abilities to act as good stewards of their students.

Somehow, these facts do not stop the likes of Campbell Brown from framing the anti-tenure campaign as being for the “rights of students,” but the only logical conclusion from the misplaced effort is that they want teaching to become a far more temporary “career” than it currently is.  Teachers, having their effectiveness rated by invalid statistical measures, will be much more easily fired without the protections of tenure.  A perpetually young and more easily replaced teaching workforce will be both cheaper and easier to manage — a model embraced by the no excuses charter schools favored by many in today’s reform effort.  That breaking teachers’ union protections would also mean breaking the last large middle class unions in the country cannot be a coincidence either.

This is no way to build a profession based upon expertise and a sense of efficacy on behalf of our children.  Do not mince words on this.  Stand with our teachers.

It’s still the economy. Today’s education reform rhetoric calls upon us to adopt massively disruptive changes to how we deliver instruction, how we manage and administer public education for the entire country, and how we conceive of teaching as a profession.  The rationale given for this is very attractive, but it is entirely deceptive.  While reformers are correct that millions of American children, mostly minority, attend schools with low achievement records as measured by standardized tests, and that a great many of those children will not have realistic opportunities to pursue higher education and escape inter-generational poverty, reformers place nearly the entire requirement to lift those children upon their public schools and teachers. The reality is that while an education is likely to play a part in any personal narrative of financial success in America, there have to be genuine economic opportunities on the other side of that education for that narrative to come to fruition.

In 2015, this does not look likely without fundamental realignments in our economic and taxation policies that today’s reformers, backed and financed by billionaires, are loathe to discuss.  For most of the past 30 years, our nation’s workers have increased their productivity and created vast amounts of wealth without seeing any significant increases in their own wages.  The skewing of gains in wealth is so severe that the top 10% of earners currently make more than half of all the wages earned in the country. Will more college graduates make more opportunity?  That seems doubtful when you take into account that the wage benefit for going to college has increased only because wages for those with no college degree have collapsed since the early 1980s.  Even in the much touted STEM fields, entry level wages for qualified college graduates have remained flat for more than a decade.  If there is a significant skills shortage in the American workforce, basic labor economics cannot detect it.  I’ve argued this for several years, and this observation was recently affirmed by Paul Krugman at The New York Times:

Furthermore, there’s no evidence that a skills gap is holding back employment. After all, if businesses were desperate for workers with certain skills, they would presumably be offering premium wages to attract such workers. So where are these fortunate professions? You can find some examples here and there. Interestingly, some of the biggest recent wage gains are for skilled manual labor — sewing machine operators, boilermakers — as some manufacturing production moves back to America. But the notion that highly skilled workers are generally in demand is just false.

Finally, while the education/inequality story may once have seemed plausible, it hasn’t tracked reality for a long time. “The wages of the highest-skilled and highest-paid individuals have continued to increase steadily,” the Hamilton Project says. Actually, the inflation-adjusted earnings of highly educated Americans have gone nowhere since the late 1990s.

Our workforce today has more education than at any point in American history, but if that is still not enough, the labor market has apparently abandoned fundamental supply and demand.

Now one thing is absolutely clear on the education side of the equation.  Opportunity to gain a strong basic education and to pursue higher education is not equitably distributed, mostly to the detriment of minority children and the rural poor.  Further, education will play a likely role in those children’s success, but we cannot refuse to change anything about our economic assumptions and call upon schools to do all of the lifting out of poverty for children and families, especially at a time when the middle class is shrinking rapidly even as the population’s total education has increased. Your campaign can call for improvement to primary and secondary education, it can address soaring costs for higher education, and it can demand more from our nation’s teachers.  However, if it makes these demands absent any serious examination of our structural inequalities that prevent significant economic opportunities from reaching the vast majority of our children, then it will simply be more of what we have seen since 1983: dire rhetoric, false premises, testing, punishment, turning our public schools over to private operators and to a hidden investor class making money off of the system.

The next time the Whitney Tilsons of our education debate approach you for support of their programs in return for campaign cash, demand to know what they will promise to do to actually be “job creators” whose workers do not require public assistance simply to survive.  Demand to know what investments in our decaying infrastructure they will support via higher taxes on themselves.  Demand to know how they will compensate their workers for the increasing profitability of their ventures that depends upon labor.  Demand to know how they will support an economy that provides actual mobility for the rest of society rather than simply supporting their Gilded Age lifestyles. Demand to know how they will support the right of labor to organize and collectively bargain for wages and benefits, the decline of which accounts for up to a third of our increasing inequality.

I know many teachers, faculty, and school administrators who are willing to do their part for a better and more equitable future for our nation’s youth.  It is time for a national candidate to demand that education reform’s financial backers, who are reaping gains by privatizing our schools, do the same.


Filed under Activism, charter schools, Corruption, DFER, Funding, Gates Foundation, NCLB, schools, Social Justice

Being an Education Reformer Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

If you’ve been the least bit of attention to the growing movement against standardized testing, you’ve probably sought out, seen, or read a summary of John Oliver’s Epic Take Down of both testing policy and the testing industry.  In the odd chance that you are not among the 3.5 million to have watched it on Youtube alone, find yourself a nice spot, pour yourself a lovely beverage, and enjoy:


John Oliver’s tour de force went viral for a number of reasons.  A lot of participants and advocates in the growing Opt Out movement, having been insulted by our current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for being whiny suburban moms who are upset that their children are not brilliant and by the Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents Merryl Tisch who compared them to people forgoing measles vaccination, were delighted that a figure with a national audience correctly addressed their concerns about how testing is driving education and education policy.  Further, Mr. Oliver’s monologue and exegesis of pro-testing dogma hit a huge number of entirely accurate points that fully deserve the mocking he heaped upon them: the pandering promises made by candidates to ease testing burdens, the proliferation of testing at the federal and state levels, the difficulty in making an accountability system work, the shift of testing from a tool to an ends unto itself, the ridiculous lengths districts now go to make testing the raison d’etre of the school year, the use of statistical models to assess teachers that originated with the analysis of cattle breeding, the quality of the assessments themselves, and the Kraken of Educational Testing and Publishing: Pearson Education.  Mr. Oliver even highlighted Pearson’s innumerable errors, the gag orders that prevent people from discussing those errors, and their search for test scorers on Craigslist.  His closing gave voice to sentiment that is increasingly shared among parents, teachers, and researchers:

Look, we’ve had more than a decade of standardized testing now, and maybe it is time to put the test to the test. The original goal was to narrow the achievement gap and to boost our scores relative to the rest of the world. Well, a 2013 study found no support for the idea that No Child Left Behind has narrowed the achievement gap, and our schools on the international tests have not only failed to rise, they’re slightly down. And I do not want to hear what that French kid thinks of those results: Oh, all this time and all this money and your Race to the Top has been, how you say, a meandering jog on a treadmill. All of this for a little of what both Presidents asked for when selling their reforms…Right, so let’s look at that: because as far as I can see, this is a system that has enriched multiple companies and which pays and fires teachers with a cattle birthing formula, confuses children with talking pineapples, and has the same kinds of rules for transparency that Brad Pitt had for Fight Club. So for Pearson, the other companies, and all the lawmakers who have supported this system, the true test is going to be either convincing everyone that it works or accepting it doesn’t work and fixing it. Because at the risk of sounding like a standardized test scorer, your numbers are not good.  And if it seems unfair to have your fates riding on a complicated metric that failed to take institutional factors into account and might not even tell the whole story, well, you’re not wrong about that but YOU do not get to complain about it.


Of course, even as individual teachers and parents were making this episode go viral, proponents were sulking that the testing system that is central to the entire enterprise of measurement and punishment running reform today was being attacked so effectively.  Peter Cunningham is a former official in the Obama Department of Education who is currently running an outfit called The Education Post which was funded with over $12 million from the Eli Broad Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, Michael Bloomberg, and an anonymous donor to create a “better conversation” about education reform.  In a recent interview with freelance journalist Jennifer Berkshire, Mr. Cunningham explained that he and fellow reform advocates felt like they were being “swarmed” whenever they went into public, and his non-profit was supposed to “rise to the defense” of people advocating for reform.  The implication here, by the way, is hilarious.  Reform outfits are richly funded by the Gates Foundation, Broad, the Waltons, Whitney Tilson, and a host of other organizations funneling huge sums of cash into promoting our current reform environment — but teacher and parents with Twitter accounts are a force that needs another multi-million dollar effort to counter, presumably because there aren’t 10s of 1000s of teachers and parents willing to band together and say, “You know, what we really need in school is even MORE pressure to make the test the curriculum.”  So Peter Cunningham, armed with millions in cash is there to “…hire bloggers and…subsidize bloggers who are already out there and who we want to support or give more lift. I think it’s fine. As you know, I have all this money. I have to spend it.”


Of course, the stated purpose of The Education Post is create a “better conversation,” so given that John Oliver had ripped a sizable, factually accurate, hole in one of education reform’s most important tools — mass, annual testing — how did Peter Cunningham contribute to “a better conversation”?  He called Mr. Oliver’s piece “tedious” and accused him of “throwing poor children under the bus” — because in reform circles, it is a matter of faith that only testing every child every year will force schools to close the achievement gap even though, as Mr. Oliver noted, there is scant evidence that it is working out like that.  While Mr. Cunningham was repeating a standard line in education reform about the moral imperative of standardized testing, his colleague, Valentina Korkes, took a more plaintive approach as a supposed fan of John Oliver’s whose heart was broken over his takedown of testing.  Ms. Korkes’ piece also covered familiar ground.  First, she chided John Oliver for not mentioning that the current strongest centers of test resistance are in communities that are wealthier than average and in the suburbs.  She claimed that the proliferation of testing at all levels — which reformers are recently lining up to decry — has nothing to do with federal policy that only mandates 17 tests.  And finally, she claims that No Child Left Behind has seen gains in the achievement gap on measures like the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), so John Oliver could not say the tests did nobody any good.  What does Ms. Korkes leave out?  First, while she is correct that test resistance numbers are greatest in wealthier communities, there is the inconvenient fact that toeholds are showing up in the communities she and her fellow testing advocates claim to support, and there is no reason to discount the likelihood that these will grow in following years as the compelling reasons for them to do so are rooted in history and research.  Similarly, while there have been very slight gains in NAEP scores during the life of NCLB, these are dwarfed by the gains that were made when federal policy in the 1970s and early 1980s was focused on equity and integration.

In fact, Ms. Korkes’ affinity for the current testing regime in our schools is indicative of a chain of thought that is pretty well discredited by now.  Reformers claim over and over that without annual testing of all children then we will never know how individual children are doing and we will hide achievement gaps from the public as schools are alleged to have done prior to NCLB.  However, Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University lays out pretty clearly that we have much more promising tools for ongoing formative assessment of individual students, and we have far less disruptive means of doing meaningful assessment of the entire system that do not require all children to be tested each year.  Further, Dr. Julian Vazquez Heilig of California State University, Sacramento, has laid out a compelling vision of accountability for education that uses data as one of its tools but which is community based and sensitive to locally understood needs. It is simply a deliberate lack of imagination from reform advocates to profess that our current system is the only means we have available to improve education.

The simple truth of our landscape today is that our testing system is far too disruptive, and it is tied to an accountability system that warps the high stakes examinations into goals unto themselves.  Ms. Korkes, like many reform advocates, is mindful that testing has increased dramatically, but she is unwilling to entertain the role that reformers have had in bringing us to this point.  She accuses John Oliver of misleading people on the state a federal policies related to testing by not emphasizing that of the 113 standardized tests taken by the average student by 12th grade, 96 of them are not mandated by the federal government.  This is an accurate point, but it is also a point that involves significant sleight of hand, and an effort to race past the fact that it was the federal government which put such high stakes on standardized testing that states and localities followed suit to prepare their students for The Annual Big One. No Child Left Behind required that all schools in all districts in all states have 100% of their students testing as “proficient” in math and English in 2014, and NCLB required all schools to make annual yearly progress (AYP) in standardized test scores or face an increasing series of interventions leading to complete restructuring (often closing the school and turning it over to a charter operator).  With such stakes attached the end of year tests mandated by NCLB, it is beyond disingenuous for testing advocates to wash their hands of states and districts requiring additional tests to benchmark students throughout the year.

While the Obama administration promised to curb the growth of testing through NCLB, their key initiatives have made matters even worse. States may have gotten waivers from the most unrealistic expectations of 100% proficiency and AYP, but to get those waivers they had to agree to make testing a significant portion of teachers’ evaluations and to evaluate all teachers in all grades using data.  Since the federally mandated tests are only in English and mathematics, this requires the use of more tests — or states can find themselves subjected to the original provisions of NCLB.  So let’s be clear about the chain of cause and effect here:  The federal government mandated both unrealistic goals and harsh consequences based upon student scores on standardized tests, resulting in states and districts adopting more benchmarking assessments so they were not taken by surprise with the federally mandated assessments.  A new administration enters and “relieves” schools from some of those provisions, but only if states and districts agree to use data for evaluation of all teachers and the most common means of using data is value added modeling, which is shockingly unreliable but mandated anyway. This moves the dire consequences of students not doing well on the examinations directly on to the shoulders of individual teachers who are not only faced with increasing time spent testing, but also who are faced with powerful incentives to narrow their curriculum into direct test preparation.

But Ms. Korkes wants you to believe that federal requirements have nothing to do with that, which is something like a car manufacturer signalling its employees that cost is the only thing that matters and then being shocked when safety related recalls become more common. Today, over testing is not a problem because of the mandated tests but because of the incentive structure that has been tied to them which make them the most important goal in the entire system.  Claiming shock at the degree to which testing is consuming time and curriculum is a new turn for reformers, but it rings hollow when they try to foist blame for over testing on those pesky states and school districts — which are responding to incentives entirely outside of their control.  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in an opinion piece in The Washington Post last year tried to acknowledge the problem while trying to distribute the blame across the entire system:

However, many have expressed concern about low-quality and redundant tests. And in some places, tests — and preparation for them — dominate the calendar and culture of schools, causing undue stress.

Policymakers at every level bear responsibility here — and that includes me and my department. We will support state and district leaders in taking on this issue and provide technical assistance to those who seek it.

Has such assistance come in the form of revisiting federal policy to decouple twisted incentives from monitoring education?  Has such assistance come in the form of listening to what research says about value added modeling and dropping it as a favored policy?  Has such assistance come as recognition that growth and support is a more viable policy for struggling schools than test and punish?  Has such assistance come even in the form of an apology from Secretary Duncan and other testing advocates for having made testing so dominant that we have lost any focus on how lack of equity in education rests with policymakers trying to make school their sole anti-poverty program?

Don’t count on it.

Arne Duncan is terribly concerned about all this over testing

Arne Duncan is terribly concerned about all this over testing


Filed under Common Core, Data, Gates Foundation, Opt Out, Pearson, Testing

Welcome to the Class of 2015 — We Need You

This week, our teacher preparation program welcomes the graduates of the Class of 2015 as our teacher colleagues.  These accomplished young teachers are joining the profession at a time of great challenges, but it is also at a time of great opportunities, and having worked with them closely for the past four years, I am convinced that they will do well with those opportunities.  These young people are intelligent; they are dedicated; they are talented; and they are prepared.  It has been an immense pleasure to see their professional journeys.

It would be a disservice to them to downplay the challenges they face as new members of the profession.  Today’s graduates were mostly born in 1993 which means that they were in third grade when the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 mandated annual standardized testing for all children in all grades between three and eight and once again in high school.  They went through their formative elementary and secondary education as the high stakes attached to mandated testing was squeezing the curriculum into a narrower box with less art, music, social studies, and science.  While the impacts of Race to the Top, the Common Core State Standards, and PARCC and SBAC testing did not influence their education, they have done their clinical internships and student teaching within schools and with cooperating teachers who have had to grapple with these issues as well as the growing movement of parents who are denying schools the right to administer standardized tests to their children.

Now they leave their university preparation to enter teaching just as these matters are fully breaking upon our schools.  The CCSS are implemented in 43 states and the District of Columbia.  Mass standardized examinations aligned with the standards are now implemented in dozens of states, and they promise to find many fewer students proficient in mathematics and English than just a year ago.  States that won Race to the Top grants or were granted NCLB waivers from the USDOE are using growth measures based on standardized testing to evaluate teachers, despite the fact that the sum of research on growth measures demonstrates that they are unstable, unreliable, and have standard errors so large that even with 10 years of data, a teacher still has more than a 10% chance of being mislabeled.

If these challenges were not hard enough, the confluence of hastily implemented and ill-conceived policies comes amidst a rhetorical turn against teachers as the major culprits behind students whose test scores do not rise.  Today’s reform environment lavishes transformational power upon education, but it simultaneously measures that transformation via crudely designed standardized tests and then blames allegedly incompetent teachers when literally nothing else is done to improve the lives or communities of students who struggle.  A coordinated effort is underway to first assess teachers via standardized test results and then to remove any workplace protections teacher have to make it easier to fire them at will.  It is little wonder that the percentage of teachers who say they are highly satisfied on the job has dropped 30 percentage points to its lowest in a generation.

A distressing side effect of this environment are the number of more experienced teachers who appear ready to discourage our new colleagues from either entering the field altogether or from bothering to have hope on the job.  Peter Greene of Curmudgucation reminds us that this is a distressing and unethical practice, and he points out the specific work of the activists in the Young Teachers Collective who are directly asking their experienced colleagues to stop discouraging them.

I hope to G-d that my proud young graduates side with the activists at YTC.  We need them very badly.

Unlike Baby Boomers and my fellow Gen Xers who indulge in annual, graduation week denigration of the Millennials for their supposed faults, I am a fan of this generation.  Having worked closely with them for years now, I find this report on their outstanding and community oriented values to be absolutely correct.  Young adults today are more diverse than their predecessors, more open to diversity than any generation in history, better educated than anyone gives them credit for, and more desirous of being good parents and good neighbors than of the aggrandizement of self typified by generations who modeled our lives after Gordon Gekko.

So let me build on Peter’s plea for people to not be jerks to young teachers, and to add my own plea: young teachers, we need you.  We need you because you have been well-prepared.  We need you because if you do not stay we will have wasted the earned experience and skills you will gain in your first decade on the job, and that will harm future students.  We also need you because of those same values that typify your generation and which will serve as a tremendous asset to protect and preserve truly public education.

But if that is going to happen, we also need you to buck some typical trends in teaching and schooling.  It is very typical for teachers to simply keep their heads low, close the door, and wait for the current political tides to shift.  That is unlikely to work today; people are getting rich messing around with our schools, and they see our nation’s commitment to education for all as a $780 billion honeypot to monetize.  The good news in the midst of this is that the people still back our public schools, and while many have bought the relentless narrative that our schools writ large are failing, parents overwhelmingly support the schools their children attend.  You can generally count on the support of your students’ parents.

We need you, therefore, to be confident in that support and to help lend a voice, early in your careers, for certain truths that can reach the public only if they are amplified by many voices:

We need you to remind people that school and teachers cannot do it all alone.  Education is a likely component of most success stories in our country, but education did not play its role in those successes alone.  Education reform talks about education as key to overcoming poverty, but it spends very little time talking about how the advantage gap is overcome by much more than “grit” and “no excuses.”  We certainly see few reformers admit the severe funding gaps between our richest and poorest schools, and Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York has openly scoffed that funding has any role to play in educational inequities.

But even beyond that issue, there is a question about the central premise of education reform today; namely, if all students acquired more and better education, would they be able to leap over poverty in their careers?  The evidence for this is unclear because even though college degree holders greatly out earn non degree holders, that gap has grown because of cratering wages for less education rather than growing wages for more:


Increasing numbers of college degree holders will not magically create more middle class households unless the number of jobs genuinely requiring college education increase as well.  Education reformers who tout the power of standards and testing to prepare students who are “college and career ready” would do well to ask their billionaire backers to support middle class economics and actually be “job creators” if they really believe education will overcome poverty.  It won’t without fundamental changes in economic opportunity on the other side of education.

We need young teachers to speak up for fundamental truths about their children in communities of poverty. Grit and no excuses make for great bumper stickers and they can produce test practice mills that result in test scores.  But truly standing up for children is more than sloganeering and shutting down schools whose children are hungry and live in communities with few genuine opportunities.  The reality is that in many of our urban communities, black and brown children go to schools with inexperienced teachers, limited services, crumbling facilities, and over crowded classrooms and then go home to neighborhoods that have been in economic decline for decades.  None of the favored reforms today are doing anything to alleviate those conditions, and many of them are making them actively worse.

We need young teachers in such communities to have the bravery of Marylin Zuniga who has lost her job teaching third graders for a series of events based on her desire to embrace both action and compassion.  Ms. Zuniga had her students read and discuss a quote about justice from Mumia Abu-Jamal who was convicted of murdering a police officer in a 1981 trial that drew strong questions about the fairness of the trial and of the appeals court from Amnesty International.  Later in the year, Ms. Zuniga allowed her students to write get well letters to Mr. Abu-Jamal when she told them he was sick and they wanted to write to him.  While Mr. Abu-Jamal’s case stirs very strong emotion, especially among law enforcement, it is important to consider what Ms. Zuniga was doing with her students, most of whom are children of color in a poor neighborhood: she asked them to consider the legitimate voice of a black man in prison whose case raises difficult questions about the justice system, and on their own, the children showed and exercised compassion.  For young people whose lives are already disrupted by family members in trouble with the criminal justice system, this is a lesson with risks that are worth exploring.  And many in her community rushed to support her even though they were unsuccessful.

If we truly care about the children in poverty in our schools, we need more teachers willing to take such risks and to affirm their students’ desires to see humanity in everyone.  We need them to assert and to affirm their values of inclusiveness and human dignity even if it means taking a risk. Many decried Ms. Zuniga’s actions, but those who knew her the best affirmed the extraordinary stewardship she exercised for children who are already struggling.

We need young teachers to stand together.  There are many forces trying to fragment teachers from working together for their students’ true interests.  There are AstroTurf groups like “Educators 4 Excellence” who take large sums of money to act like a genuine grassroots group but whose pledge includes supporting discredited teacher evaluation methods favored by union busting corporate donors.  There is the “Education Post” headed by Peter Cunningham, formerly of the Obama Administration, and funded with millions of dollars from Eli Broad and the Walton Family Foundation to make a “better conversation” but mostly to pay people to respond to criticisms of education reform as if they have grassroots support.

So when I plead with young teachers to “stand together” I do not just mean to join your union and be active (although, yes, I do mean that too).  I also mean to do what your generation does better than any of us — maintain close and genuine bonds across distance via technology and to forge naturally occurring and completely authentic communities to support each other and to support your students.  Talk to each other.  Share ideas.  Plan.  Respond in the public sphere.  Magnify your voices.  Make stories of public school success go viral.  You have something that corporate reformers can never replicate:  you have authenticity.  Use it.

So, Class of 2015, welcome to our profession.  I am honored that you are my colleagues.  Please stay.  Please lead.


Filed under Activism, Funding, Media, Opt Out, politics, Social Justice, Unions

Have We Wasted Over a Decade?

A dominant narrative of the past decade and a half of education reform has been to highlight alleged persistent failures of our education system.  While this tale began long ago with the Reagan Administration report A Nation at Risk, it has been put into overdrive in the era of test based accountability that began with the No Child Left Behind Act.  That series of amendments to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act mandated annual standardized testing of all students in grades 3-8 and once in high school, set a target for 100% proficiency for all students in English and mathematics, and imposed consequences for schools and districts that either failed to reach proficiency targets or failed to test all students.  Under the Obama administration, the federal Department of Education has freed states from the most stringent requirements to meet those targets, but in return, states had to commit themselves to specific reforms such as the adoption of common standards, the use of standardized test data in the evaluation of teachers, and the expansion of charter schools.  All of these reforms are predicated on the constantly repeated belief that our citizens at all levels are falling behind international competitors, that our future workforce lacks the skills they will need in the 21st century, and that we have paid insufficient attention to the uneven distribution of equal opportunity in our nation.

But what if we’ve gotten the entire thing wrong the whole time?

Or, perhaps to be more accurate, what if the entire picture of American public education is simply far, far more complicated that the simplistic, even opportunistic, narrative of failure we’ve been hearing since 1983?  Two reports, noted in January of this year by Kay McSpadden of the Charlotte Observer, put the presumption of failure into question.   The first report was released by the National Center for Educational Statistics at the USDOE and was about the results of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).  According to the PIRL Study, the United States does very well compared to other nations and international cities, ranking below 4 other territories (Hong Kong, Russian Federation, Finland, Singapore) and not being significantly different than 7 others (Northern Ireland-GBR, Denmark, Croatia, Chinese Taipei-CHN, Ireland, England-GBR).  While PIRLS does not include all of the nations we typically see cited as outperforming the United States, the study evaluates whether or not students have learned the literacy skills likely to be taught in school, and in this category, students in the USA are doing quite well, with 56% of students achieving the “high” benchmark or greater.  In fact, when poverty characteristics are taken into account, the accomplishment of US students and schools is even more impressive.  Students in schools with between 10-25% of students eligible for free or reduced lunch scored 584, which is higher than the national average for top performing Singapore, a city state where roughly 1 in 10 households earns an income below the average monthly expenditure on basic needs and whose actual poverty rate may be higher.  At the same time, United States students whose schools have 75% or more students qualifying for free or reduced lunch, scored 520, roughly the same as African American students, and “tied” with France, 18 places behind the U.S. average.

The PIRLS data tells us something that we’ve known for some time.  United States testing data, much like United States educational funding, is tightly coupled with the poverty characteristics of the community tested.  Dr. Stephen Krashen, Professor Emeritus at University of Southern California, concluded that the unspectacular scores on U.S. students on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) are largely attributable to our 21% child poverty rate and the impact that has on communities and individual children.  PIRLS results tell a similar story, and the persistent connection between race and poverty in America similarly explains the score gap between African American students and other ethnic groups.

The second report cited by Ms. McSpadden was released by the Horace Mann League with the National Superintendent’s Roundtable, and is titled The Iceberg Effect, An International Look at Often Overlooked Education IndicatorsThe report compared the United States, Canada, China, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom on indicators of economic equity, social stress, support for young families, support for schools, student outcomes, and system outcomes.  Perhaps most interesting is that the United States ranked next to last or last on economic equity, social stress, and support for young families, ranked fourth in support for schools and fifth in student outcomes, but then ranked first in system outcomes.  In support for schools, the United States was well ranked in expenditures and class sizes, but U.S. teachers enjoy far less support than their international peers, clocking over 1000 hours in the classroom compared to the Finland and G7 average of 664 hours.  Student outcomes for the United States are very high in the fourth grade assessments but are brought down overall by high school assessments, and the report notes that gaps by SES exist in all countries.  Interestingly, in system outcomes, the U.S. leads the studied nations in the number of years of schooling completed, the portion of the population with high school diplomas and BA degrees, and has the largest proportion of high performing science students.

These results are actually quite astonishing when you consider the extremely low performance for the United States in indicators of economic stability and social support.  We ranked the just above China in terms of economic inequality, and our communities are subject to shockingly high levels of social stress in the form of violence and premature death from violence and drug use, which studies show have long lasting impact on health and brain development.  These indicators are not even offset in the U.S. by generous expenditures in support of families and children or access to preschool as we ranked only above China and below the G-7 and Finland.

One has to wonder if the individual student results would be closer to matching the U.S. system results if we had spent the past 13 years focusing on the first five indicators instead of upon test based accountability.

This is no idle speculation because since NCLB, our school system has been subjected largely to a federally imposed experiment in warped behavioral economics where first school districts and then individual teachers were incentivized by high stakes attached to standardized tests to improve themselves or be targeted, by those same test scores, for dire consequences.  However, in the absence of doing much of anything else to support teachers, schools, families, or communities, the tests have ceased to be a way to monitor performance and have become an object in and of themselves.  With the dominant theme of education reform being “Test – Label – Punish” we have crafted a “reform” environment that expects targets and incentives to pressure schools and teachers to close long known achievement gaps all by themselves with literally no other aspect of our political and economic infrastructure doing a thing — except close those schools and turn them over to privately run charter school operators who like to boast about their nearly miraculous test scores, but whose practices are entirely unlike what you would expect of a public education system that is designed to serve all students.

This is not a school accountability and improvement agenda so much as it is a system operating on the kind of incentive structures endemic at Enron before its collapse.  Little wonder, therefore, that Kevin G. Welner and William J. Mathis of University of Colorado at Boulder called for a sharp move away from test based accountability:

The ultimate question we should be asking isn’t whether test scores are good measures of learning, whether growth modeling captures what we want it to, or even whether test scores are increasing; it is whether the overall impact of the reform approach can improve or is improving education. Boosting test scores can, as we have all learned, be accomplished in lots of different ways, some of which focus on real learning but many of which do not. An incremental increase in reading or math scores means almost nothing, particularly if children’s engagement is decreased; if test-prep comes at a substantial cost to science, civics, and the arts; and if the focus of schooling as a whole shifts from learning to testing.

The way forward is not to tinker further with failed test-based accountability mechanisms; it is to learn from the best of our knowledge. We should not give up on reaching the Promised Land of equitable educational opportunities through substantially improved schooling, but we must study our maps and plan a wise path. This calls for a fundamental rebalancing —which requires a sustained, fair, adequate and equitable investment in all our children sufficient to provide them their educational birthright, and an evaluation system that focuses on the quality of the educational opportunities we provide to all of our children. As a nation, we made our greatest progress when we invested in all our children and in our society.

This call is incredibly important in no small part because education “reformers” are correct in one critical observation about American education even if their solutions are poorly constructed.  Educational opportunity is not evenly distributed in America in no small part because the known impacts of poverty on children tend to concentrated in specific zip codes due to rising levels of income segregation.  The upshot of this is that a school which serves a discernible number of children in poverty will tend to serve a large percentage of children in poverty while schools with students from economic advantage will have almost none.  We do not need standardized test based accountability to tell us that outcomes are different in Mt. Vernon than in Scarsdale, but we should demand action.

If not testing, labeling, and punishing, then what?  First, we have to recognize that community conditions directly impact schools, and if we expect schools to provide access to opportunities for their students, then we, as a society, need to accept responsibility for the lack of opportunities in many of our communities. 51% of today’s school children qualify for free or reduced lunch, meaning their families subsist  185% of the Federal Poverty Level or less, so I take it as a given that economic opportunities are not as abundant as they ought to be.

Second, we should recognize the support and capacity building we have completely failed to provide for schools by placing our focus on testing as more than system monitoring.  What could have been done differently if we had taken a different focus?

  • What if we had finally fulfilled federal promises to fund the Individuals With Disabilities in Education Act at 40% of average cost which has never been done?
  • What if we had taken seriously the 25% of schools with more than half of students eligible for free or reduced lunch that have physical facilities rated “fair” or “poor” and pledged to invest in school capital improvement needs across the nation estimated at $197 billion?
  • What if we had spent ten years expanding early childhood services and support for families?
  • What if we had pledged to get full wrap around services into all Title 1 schools?
  • What if we had recognized that working with high concentrations of high risk students requires a genuine commitment to resources and capacity building which has been nearly completely absent in the age of test based accountability?

By most measures, the past 14 years have been a completely wasted opportunity (except for the private charter school advocates who have been monetizing their school model and the corporations that have profited from testing).  It is time to stop.  It is time to make a commitment to education that is equal to the soaring rhetoric reformers have lavished upon testing.



Filed under charter schools, Common Core, Data, Funding, NCLB, Pearson, politics, Social Justice, Testing