Monthly Archives: October 2015

Spring Valley High School Assault: When “Moderation” is Violence

On Monday afternoon, video footage showing a School Resource Officer (SRO) in Columbia, South Carolina’s Spring Valley High School flipping over a seated female student and hurling her across the room began to go viral.  The video, of which there are now several versions from different classmates, shows the officer, Ben Fields, approaching the seated student, talking to her briefly, and then flipping her backwards in her desk before hurling her across the room while classmates and a school administrator look on passively:

Officer Fields, who has been the subject of lawsuits for excessive force and discrimination, has been fired according to Sheriff Leon Lott, and the federal Department of Justice has begun its own investigation.  Initial reports that the young woman is orphaned appear to be false, but her status in the foster care system is still in question.  Classmate Niya Kenny was arrested along with the other student and told local media that she was trying to stand up for her schoolmate:

“I know this girl don’t got nobody and I couldn’t believe this was happening,” Kenny explained. “I had never seen nothing like that in my life, a man use that much force on a little girl. A big man, like 300 pounds of full muscle. I was like ‘no way, no way.’ You can’t do nothing like that to a little girl. I’m talking about she’s like 5’6″.”

The story, as we know it now, unfolded when the young woman’s teacher caught her with her cell phone out and ended up requesting that she leave class.  When she did not, an administrator was brought in who called in Officer Fields.  There is no indication that the young woman did anything other than passively remain in the classroom when asked to leave. Another classmate, who took one of the videos currently circulating, said that the girl was apologetic about having her phone out and about not leaving.  He said the situation turned violent when the girl told Officer Fields that she did not know who he was:

“I’ve never seen anything so nasty looking, so sick to the point that you know, other students are turning away, don’t know what to do, and are just scared for their lives,” Robinson said. “That’s supposed to be somebody that’s going to protect us. Not somebody that we need to be scare off, or afraid.”

“That was wrong. There was no justifiable reason for why he did that to that girl.”

I am going to start with some premises that I consider to be undeniable.  I know that some people will deny them anyway, but in my mind, as an educator, as a parent, and as a citizen, these are not up for negotiation:

  • First: The grown ups in this classroom utterly failed this child.  Regardless of her behavior (or more accurately, her lack of behavior), the adults in the room are acting in loco parentis and have legal and moral obligations to treat every child in the room with the utmost care as if they were their own.  There were tools for deescalation that both the teacher and the administrator could have used before ever calling in Officer Fields.  If those had not worked, Officer Fields’ inexcusably went almost immediately to violent assault.
  • Second:  There is no excuse, no justification, no set of circumstances, no words spoken that can ever justify the level of violence that was inflicted upon this girl and the terror she and her classmates must have experienced as a result.  She was seated.  She was passive.  There was no threat of violence or harm to anyone in the room that warranted a physical response of any kind.  Officer Fields was not placing himself between fighting students to prevent harm to themselves or to others.  He flung a child across the room solely because she did not comply with an order.
  • Third: Whether or not the young woman in question is orphaned, in foster care, or not is entirely beside the point. Our desires to find good kid versus bad kid narratives is part of our misplaced desire to sympathize with an entirely innocent, pure, victim of brutality when the fact is that we should sympathize with any victim of brutality.  It clouds our judgement and distracts from the inexcusable choices made by the adults in the classroom.  Trayvon Martin was posthumously defamed for the “sin” of not being a “perfect victim.”  Eric Garner was blamed for his own death.  Ultimately, the demand for victims of institutionalized brutality to be “perfect” is a demand to rationalize their deaths and wounds as deserved and a demand to clear our own consciences for systems that benefit us and brutalize others.

As is typical in the age of social media, there is now a steady stream of fault finders declaring that the young woman deserved her treatment and looking frame by frame at her being hauled backwards in her desk for evidence that she “caused” the assault.  I have no time or patience for that, and I readily chalk it up to racism.  But there is also a call from many that I have seen to be “cautious,” to assess the girl’s behavior, and to “wait for all the facts” as if there is some hidden information that might balance to blame assessment.

I get the temptation.  As teachers, we are frequently called upon to moderate opposing sides, and we are trained to look for multiple points of view on a range of contentious issues.  The good teacher will sometimes have to defend a point of view that he or she disagrees with if it is unpopular and is being dismissed without consideration by our students.  But this is simply not one of those cases – a seated child, passively resisting an order to leave the classroom, and who poses no threat to anyone, simply cannot be hurled across a room, and it is not “moderation” to call for more information, or to call to see both sides, or to insist that the young woman’s behavior must occupy our attention as well.  It is, intentional or not, the perpetuation of violence.  It draws our attention away from the failures of the adults in the classroom to find a peaceful solution to a peaceful problem.

Writing for The New York Times, Roxane Grey asked, pointedly, “Where Are Black Children Safe?”

Time and again, in such situations, black people are asked, why don’t we mind our place? To be black in America is to exist with the presumption of guilt, burdened by an implacable demand to prove our innocence. We are asked impossible questions by people who completely ignore a reality where so many of the rules we are supposed to follow are expressly designed to subjugate and work against our best interests. We ignore the reality that we cannot just follow the rules and find our way to acceptance, equality or justice. Respectability politics are a delusion.

Far too little attention is being given to who the young girl is, or that, according to the lawyer representing her, she is in foster care. When that officer saw her, sitting quietly, defiantly, she was not allowed to be human. She was not allowed to have a complex story. She was held to a standard of absolute obedience. She was not given the opportunity to explain the why of her defiance because she was a black body that needed to be disciplined by any means necessary.

This reality, that so many children of color cannot even find refuge in school and are subjected to detrimental policies that we have long known do not work, strikes at the very heart of our moral responsibilities as teachers.  If students in our care face institutional violence, it is a massive failure of our role as stewards, and we must resist it on their behalf.  Allowing ourselves to become distracted by calls for “moderation” of viewpoint in response to that is another failure, and it makes us accomplices in a system that makes it impossible for a young person of color to ever not be at fault when assaulted.

I am reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who wrote this in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.

More than half a century later, even with the tangible progress that has been made in America, that same impulse to call for “moderation” and “balance” when presented with abject injustice is still with us.  It is a call that comes most frequently from a place of comfort and privilege that apparently cannot tolerate being made uncomfortable.  It is a call that shields enfranchised people from examining their own privilege and causes them to vote for leaders and policies that subject others far from them to injustice and violence.

And it is one of the most intractable problems that we face.

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Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Activism, racism, Social Justice

When is a Pledge to Decrease Testing Not a Pledge to Decrease Testing?

Apparently, when President Obama makes it.

Honestly, at this point in his administration, expecting President Obama to well and truly take action to reverse the damage of the “test and punish” era of school accountability is like expecting the Bush administration to not start unnecessary wars.  That, however, did not prevent the national media from declaring that President Obama’s weekend call for reducing the burden of standardized testing in public schools a major departure from previous policies.  David Dayen of Salon gushed that the President was breaking “with twenty years of precedent,” and Mother Jones’ Julia Lurie wrote that “the announcement represents a significant change in course for the Obama administration.” Nearly every major news outlet declared the announcement a move to limit the time spent on standardized testing in school, and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten hopefully declared the announcement a move towards fixing an urgent problem in education today:

People deeply informed on the issue of high stakes testing and its warping impact on our schools are far less hopeful than President Weingarten and not remotely as gushing as the national press.  Peter Greene of Curmudgucation held no punches over the weekend, flatly declaring that the Obama plan “sucks and changes nothing.”  His key points are entirely accurate and properly cut through the smoke and mirrors of the announcement to a purpose more aimed at trying to trick anti-testing advocates into complacency:

The fact that the administration noticed, again, that there’s an issue here is nice. But all they’re doing is laying down a barrage of protective PR cover. This is, once again, worse than nothing because it not only doesn’t really address the problem, but it encourages everyone to throw a victory party, put down their angry signs, and go home. Don’t go to the party, and don’t put down your signs.

Anthony Cody of Living in Dialogue noted, quite correctly, that President Obama has sounded this note before and utterly failed to follow through with anything that would diminish the punishing role of current testing policies.  The administration apparently hopes the announcement and some minor shifts will allow them to bide their time while changing very little:

First, President Obama remains unaware of the very limited educational value of standardized tests, and second, the administration remains absolutely committed to tests playing a key role in America’s classrooms. As some have pointed out, now that the PARCC and SBAC tests are here, and have plainly failed to deliver on Duncan’s 2010 promise that they would measure creativity and critical thinking so much better than any previous test, now we are looking forward to the NEXT generation of tests, which will be “competency-based.” Cue the test vendors for another multi-million dollar development project.

No matter how bad the current tests are, the new and better tests are always just around the corner. And anyone who dares to question this optimistic projection is a Luddite afraid of accountability.

Dr. Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, an expert on value added measures at Arizona State University, was not impressed with the announcement either, noting that the proposed 2% limit on time spent on testing would still mean 18 hours of annual standardized test taking time for most students.  She further observed:

In addition, all of this was also based (at least in part, see also here) on new survey results recently released by the Council of the Great City Schools, in which researchers set out to determine how much time is spent on testing. They found that across their (large) district members, the average time spent testing was “surprisingly low [?!?]” at 2.34%, which study authors calculate to be approximately 4.22 total days spent on just testing (i.e., around 21 hours if one assumes, again, an average day’s instructional time = 5 hours). Again, this does not include time spent preparing for tests, nor does it include other non-standardized tests (e.g., those that teachers develop and use to assess their students’ learning).

So, really, the feds did not decrease the amount of time spent testing really at all, they literally just rounded down, losing 34 hundredths of a whole. For more information about this survey research study, click here.

Interestingly, the 2% idea apparently comes from Secretary Duncan’s slated replacement, former New York Commissioner and current senior adviser, Dr. John King Jr. who puts such a limit in place in New York in order to placate growing concerns over the dominant role of standardized testing in the state.

Well, we all know how that turned out, right?

Perhaps most damning was the scathing response penned by Robert Pondiscio for US News and Word Report.  Mr. Pondiscio is a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank that has been highly supportive of the Common Core and associated testing, an adviser to the Democracy Prep chain of no-excuses charter schools, and while he is generally well disposed to the data from standardized testing, he has also been willing to question to impact of the stakes attached to them in the current environment.  That questioning was in overdrive in his commentary:

But one would have to be cynical or naive not to understand that the moment you use tests, which are designed to measure student performance, to trigger various corrective actions and interventions effecting teachers and schools, you are fundamentally shifting tests from providing evidence of student performance to something closer to the very purpose of schooling. This is precisely what has been occurring in our schools for the last decade or more. When parents complain, rightfully so, about over-testing, what they are almost certainly responding to is not the tests themselves, which take up a vanishingly small amount of class time, but the effects of test-and-prep culture, which has fundamentally changed the experience of schooling for our children, and not always for the better.

The Obama talk on testing seeks to curry favor with parents and teachers (and their unions) while doing nearly nothing to change the fundamental role of testing and its effect on schooling. It’s all well and good to “encourage” states, districts and schools to limit testing, but as long as test-driven accountability measures, which are driven substantially by federal law, are used not to provide feedback to parents and other stakeholders but to trigger corrective measures in schools, it won’t matter if children take two tests or 2000; the effects will be the same.

While I question the degree of positives that Mr. Pondiscio lavishes upon standardized testing data (“the life-blood that courses through the arteries” – really?), I am not, myself, against limited standardized testing being part of a comprehensive system of school monitoring and being the very beginning point of school improvement efforts.  What is most striking to me is how clearly, however, that Mr. Pondsicio has identified the problem with the perverse incentives testing has placed upon our schools in the era of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top:  The stakes placed upon the tests have transformed their purpose from being “in the background” monitors of schools, school systems, and state performance into being objects unto themselves.  The tests and “adding value” to student performance on them have become a substantial purpose of education instead of a by product of a rich and meaningful educational program.

That’s a problem, and it is good that someone prominent in education reform circles has noted it for some time now and is willing to go on record in a major publication to call President Obama and his education team to the mat for it.  Mr. Pondiscio, who says test based measures are the most reliable and objective teacher evaluation tool, appears willing to give that up because its side effects have driven teachers away from the Common Core and from any testing whatsoever.  I disagree vigorously with the idea that test based measure are either reliable or objective (and the bulk of the research evidence is on my side on this), but I actually sympathize with Mr. Pondiscio’s predicament and his apparent frustration that the administration steadfastly refuses to get it.  I have written on this before, urging reformers who really want a chance at building support for common standards and who value the use of standardized testing at all to decouple them from high stakes before popular revulsion violently swings the pendulum out of their reach for the next two decades.  Common standards, done thoughtfully and carefully (the Common Core were not) and disseminated by genuine common interest among states entering fully voluntary partnerships (the states in Common Core did not) and offered to teachers with appropriate time for development of their own knowledge and curricula with high quality materials (teachers in Common Core states never got that) is a defensible proposition.  Comprehensive system monitoring that uses standardized test data limited to the purposes for which it can work well is also entirely defensible.

It is also swirling in the drain reserved for ideas that end up flushed out of the education system, and Mr. Pondiscio appears aware that he has many of his own allies to blame for it, and, hence, his frustration.  The problem, however, is one that his allies in Washington and various state capitols also seem unwilling to acknowledge, and unless, they do acknowledge it, they have little incentive to back off of testing policies tied to high stakes.

The problem is that they are lazy.

School accountability and improvement is difficult and often uncertain work.  When used honestly, standardized test score data can tell you where to begin, but it should never be confused with evidence of what needs to happen in a school.  Are there schools with low test scores and low value added that are Dickensian nightmares that should be closed as soon as possible?  Sure.  There are 98,000 public schools in the country.  But there are also schools with low test scores and low value added that are full of devoted teachers, strong school leaders, and committed parents, but who need resources to provide genuine educational opportunities for all learners and to do so in a way that does not cheat them of a well-rounded and holistic education.  For that matter, there are schools that boast of their great test scores and high value added, but they get there by being Victorian work houses worthy of Scrooge where children are basically beaten into submission.

The point is that you do not know until you go to the school and actually investigate.

But the Arne Duncans and the John Kings do not want to do that.  They want to sit in offices in Albany and Washington, look over spreadsheets, and make sweeping judgements about which schools are winners and which schools are losers.  They cannot really give up the high stakes attached to the standardized tests because that would mean they would have to do the hard of work of accountability and renewal, the work that actually can inform smart choices based upon community input.

And we can’t have that, now, can we?

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Filed under Arne Duncan, Common Core, John King, Testing, VAMs

Lies, Damned Lies, and PARCC Scores

In February of this year, as communities and schools in New Jersey were awaiting the arrival of PARCC testing, I wrote this opinion piece for the Bergen County Record.  In it, I said:

What can be expected? If experiences of other states that have already implemented PARCC- and CCSS-aligned exams are illustrative, New Jersey’s teachers, students and parents can expect steep declines in the percentage of students scoring in the higher levels of achievement. Neighboring New York, for example, has its own Pearson-designed CCSS-aligned exam, and the percentage of students scoring proficient or highly proficient was cut essentially in half to roughly 35 percent for both math and English….

….There is no reason to believe that 11th-graders today are any less skilled than their peers who took the HSPA last year or who took the NAEP in 2013, but there are plenty of reasons to believe that a drop in scores on PARCC will be exploited for political purposes.

It is a terrible burden being proven correct so often.

The New Jersey DOE released its report on the statewide results on PARCC this week, and immediately their meaning was thoroughly misrepresented by the media and by state Commissioner David Hespe. Writing for NJ.com, Adam Clark said that the results mean “The majority of New Jersey students in grades 3 through 11 failed to meet grade-level expectations on controversial math and English tests the state says provide the most accurate measurement of student performance yet.”  In the same article, Commissioner Hespe is cited as saying:

Overall, the results show that high school graduation requirements are not rigorous enough for most students to be successful after graduation, state Education Commissioner David Hespe said. The 2014-15 results set a new baseline for improving student achievement, he said.

“There is still much work to be done in ensuring all of our students are fully prepared for the 21st century demands of college and career,” Hespe said.

Neither claim is remotely based on a factual representation of what these test scores mean.  As my colleague Dr. Chris Tienken noted:

To begin with, the statement that the majority of students “failed to meet grade level expectations” is entirely dependent upon the “meets expectations” and “exceeds expectations” being a proper representation of “grade level” work for each year tested.  There is no basis for making this determination.  PARCC has not provided research to bolster that claim, and, more importantly, we know that reading passages in the exam were specifically several grade levels above what can be developmentally expected of different aged readers.  Russ Walsh of Rider University analyzed sample PARCC reading passages that were available in February of this year, and he found that using most agreed upon methods of determining readability that they were inappropriate for use in testing.  There is no justification for such choices in test design unless the test makers want to push the cut scores for meeting and exceeding expectations well above what the median student is even capable of developmentally.  It is therefore entirely unjustifiable to call these examination results proof that our students are not doing their work “at grade level,” and honestly, it is getting damned tiring to have to repeat that endlessly.

Commissioner Hespe’s comments were no more helpful, and certainly were not based in facts.  The Commissioner repeated the often heard claims that the PARCC exams represent a more appropriate set of skills to demonstrate that our students are “ready” for the 21st Century and to measure their “college and career readiness,” but the justifications for those claims have never been subjected to public scrutiny.  While the language of “college and career readiness” is slathered all over the Common Core State Standards and the aligned examinations written by PARCC and SBAC, repeating a slogan is a marketing tool rather than research validation.  Five years after the standards were rammed through into 43 states and the District of Columbia, we are no closer to understanding the validity of the claim that the standards embody “college and career readiness” nor are we closer to knowing that the examinations can sort out who is or is not “ready.”

Further, the Commissioner’s claim that the test results “prove” that New Jersey high school graduation requirements are “not rigorous enough for most students to be successful after graduation” rests on two unproven contentions: 1) that PARCC actually is sorting those who are “ready” for college and careers from those who are not and 2) students who do not score “at expectations” or above can blame any lack of success they have later in life on their primary and secondary education rather than on macroeconomic forces that have systematically hollowed out opportunity.

Let’s consider the first part of that claim.  PARCC claims that its Pearson written exam is a “next generation” assessment that really requires students to think rather than to respond, but does it actually achieve that end?  Julie Campbell of Dobbs Ferry, New York, has had experience with students taking the New York common core aligned examinations which are also written by Pearson, and while she is supportive of the Common Core Standards, she is highly critical of the caliber of “thinking” the exams require:

The four-point extended response question is troubling in and of itself because it instructs students to: explain how Zac Sunderland from “The Young Man and the Sea” demonstrates the ideas described in “How to be a Smart Risk-Taker.”  After reading both passages, one might find it difficult to argue that Zac Sunderland demonstrates the ideas found in “How to be a Smart Risk-Taker” because sailing solo around the world as a teenager is a pretty outrageous risk! But the question does not allow students to evaluate Zac as a risk taker and decide whether he demonstrates the ideas in the risk taker passage. Such a question, in fact, could be a good critical thinking exercise in line with the Common Core standards! Rather students are essentially given a thesis that they must defend: they MUST prove that Zac demonstrates competency in his risk/reward analysis.

So one can hardly be surprised to find an answer like this:

 One idea described in “How to be a Smart Risk-taker” is evaluating risks. It is smart to take a risk only when the potential upside outweighs the potential downside. Zac took the risk because the downside “dying” was outweighed by the upside (adventure, experience, record, and showing that young people can do way more than expected from them). (pg 87)

Do you find this to be a valid claim? Is the downside of “dying” really outweighed by the upside, “adventure”? Is this example indicative of Zac Sunderland being a “Smart Risk Taker”? I think most reasonable people would argue against this notion and surmise that the student has a flawed understanding of risk/reward based on the passage. According to Pearson and New York State, however, this response is exemplary. It gets a 4.

There may not be “one right answer” in an examination like this, but what might be actually worse is that students can be actively coached to submit “plug and play” answers which mimic a style of thinking but which have no depth and, worse, can be nonsensical just so long as they hit the correct rubric markers.

We should also question Commissioner Hespe’s contention that these exams are showing us anything new about our high school graduates and students in general.  They most decidedly are not.  Again, the New York experience is illustrative. Jersey Jazzman does an outstanding job demonstrating that in New York State, even as proficiency levels tumbled off the proverbial cliff, the actual distribution of scale scores on the different exams barely moved at all.  The reason is simple: once raw scores are converted into scale scores on a standardized exam, they, by design, reflect a normal distribution of scores, and it does not matter if the exam is “harder” or not — the distribution of scaled scores will continue to represent a bell curve, and once the previous scores and current scores are represented by a scatter plot, 85% of the new scores are explained by the old scores.  In other words: the “new” and “better” tests were not actually saying anything that was not known by the older tests.  The decision to set proficiency levels so that many fewer students are “meeting expectations” is a choice that is completely unrelated to the distribution of scores on the tests.

So let’s check if we really are concerned that New Jersey students are graduating not “ready for college and careers.”  Here are the statewide scores on PARCC according to the DOE release:

NJ ELA PARCC

NJ MATH PARCC

So this means, in the language of PARCC, that “only” 41% of New Jersey 11th graders are “on track” to be “college and career ready” in English, and “only” 36% of Algebra students are similarly situated (Again, remember that score distributions are likely almost entirely unchanged from the previous state assessments – this is about how high the cut scores are set).  Oddly enough, the DOE pretty much admits that we did not need PARCC to demonstrate this to us because New Jersey participates in the National Assessment of Educational Progress testing every several years, and, wouldn’t you know it, NAEP and PARCC results are not perfectly aligned, but they come pretty darned close (as do SAT and ACT scores):

NJ NAEP AND PARCC

The high school reading and algebra proficiency levels are almost entirely identical comparing PARCC to NAEP.  Dr. Diane Ravitch of New York University sat on the NAEP Board of Governors and has repeatedly explained that both the “advanced” and “proficient” levels in NAEP represent very high level work at the “A” level for secondary students.  So not only have the PARCC scores told us things about our students in NJ that we already knew from NAEP, but also it reaffirms the NAEP findings that over 40% of New Jersey high school seniors are capable of A level work in English and over a third of those students are capable of A level work in Algebra.

If the goal is to have all of our students “college and career ready” by reading and doing algebra at the “meets” and “exceeds expectations” level on a test roughly correlated to NAEP levels indicating A level achievement, then we might as well shut down shop right now because our schools will always fail.  Moreover, we should vigorously question the implication that any student getting respectful if not outstanding grades in core subjects is doomed to failure, and we should certainly question a goal of “college and career readiness” that appears entirely limited to “ready for admission to a 4 year selective college.”  The nonsensical approach of using cut scores to identify the percentage of students likely to seek a 4 year degree and labeling them our only students who are “ready” is based more on a desire to label more schools and students as failures than any other consideration.

The reality is that there are crises relating to education and opportunity both in New Jersey and in the country as a whole.  The first crisis is related to the distribution of opportunity via our education system.  I can walk a few miles from the campus where I teach and find a community where over 70% of the adults over the age of 25 have a college degree, and I can walk a few miles in the exact opposite direction and find a community where that is only 12% of the population.  That is unacceptable and needs to change; it is also something that we knew full well before the PARCC examinations came along, and which we will not address by berating test scores while ignoring the importance of fair and equitable school funding.

The second crisis is in our economy and the simple fact that our economy has shown no signs of actually needing more people with bachelors degrees.  Since 1986, the dollar adjusted wages for people with a BA in the country have grown only by $700, but the college wage premium has grown largely because of the collapse of wages for people without those degrees:

SDT-higher-education-02-11-2014-0-03

Far from needing many more college graduates, which would push wages even further down, we need an economy where people who work full time without a degree can survive well above subsistence level and closer to their college educated peers as they used to before 1980.  Unless Commissioner Hespe and his fellow PARCC supporters are arguing that college really is the new high school – in which case they had better get to work right away finding a way to make it free for everyone because we cannot possibly survive an economic system that both requires everyone to have a specific degree and requires them to accumulate crushing debt in pursuit of it.

(Just a side observation:  remember when PARCC promised that their “next generation assessments” would “help teachers know where to strengthen their instruction and let parents know how their children are doing”?  It is now about half a year later, and those students have been in their NEW teachers’ classrooms for almost 2 full months now. It is far too late for teachers to even use the score reports to make adjustments in their curricula that they were developing all summer long without the PARCC results. If the goal of the assessments was to give teachers actionable data in anything remotely resembling real time, they are a crashing, embarrassing failure, and given the testing schedule in late Spring, they are likely to remain so.)

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Filed under Common Core, Opt Out, PARCC, Testing

Eva Moskowitz is Out of Control

Fresh off their rally with charter school parents and students on October 7th, “Families” For Excellent Schools has announced that they will hold another rally on Wednesday the 21st of October.   This rally, which will be held in Manhattan’s Foley Square, will reportedly feature nearly 1,000 charter school teachers predominantly from Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy network.  While some teachers from Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, and KIPP are expected to be present, Ms. Moskowitz’s workforce will be the primary participants, and the network just so happens to have a scheduled half school day so that teachers can show up to the rally for the purpose of pressuring law makers into allowing more charter schools in the city.  Chew on that for a moment: a scheduled half day of school.  A political rally.  The teachers in attendance.

I don’t know about you, but when my children’s unionized public school teachers take a half day, it is because they are in professional development workshops and related activities.  They certainly are not being taken from their schools to a rally organized by a lobbying group funded specifically to increase their influence with lawmakers in City Hall and in Albany.  In fact, try to imagine this scenario: Chancellor Farina organizes a half day of work for all city schools and then coordinates a rally for public schools with the UFT on the same day and 1000s of public school teachers, rather than using the half day for professional development, show up near city hall to provide the optics.  If you can pretend for one second that Governor Cuomo would not be demanding that the Assembly and Senate hold hearings and seek potential sanctions against both the union and the Chancellor, I question your grip on reality.

It would be one thing for “Families” For Excellent Schools to organize political rallies for parents and supporters of charter schools to attend and to use that platform to advocate for more such schools.  That is indisputably their right.  It becomes much more questionable when those rallies are organized in such a way that Eva Moskowitz closes her schools during multiple rallies, leaving parents with no place to send their children and essentially forcing them to take a day from work to attend so that they and their children add to event’s optics.  That is within their rights, but frankly, it is cheap and coercive.  But now the network will use a half day of instruction to provide its teachers to send a political message on education policy.  And considering the extraordinarily high pressure work environment at Success Academy that is also verified by job review sites, it is hard to believe that very many of the promised teachers for next week’s rally feel comfortable declining to participate.

And it is monstrously unethical: our fully public schools would spark legitimate outrage if they organized a school day around sending their employees to a political rally organized by a lobbyist organization.  How can it be tolerable for Eva Moskowitz to use her employees, and students, and parents as window dressing for campaigns to funnel more and more public school funding and public school facilities into her organization that she has repeatedly refused to allow “outsiders” to hold her accountable?  What Superintendent of schools has such authority?

It is important to remind ourselves that “Families” for Excellent Schools is a 501 (c) (3) “public charity” that is a front for billionaire backed efforts to radically privatize public education and break public sector unions.  While tax exempt law forbids them from backing specific political campaigns, they are allowed to lobby and to “educate” the public which they do by funneling money from a variety of sources such as the Walton Family Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and Education Reform Now – another dark money financed organization connected with “Democrats” For Education Reform.  “Families” For Excellent Schools suddenly shot up in revenue from June of 2013 when they reported $1,000,777 in revenue to June 2014 when they reported $12,265,162.  Of that, an eye watering $9,137,910 was spent on campaign and advocacy activities, and while their 990 Schedule A cites no portion of their contributions from “individuals” giving more than 2% of total contributions — that means anyone could give $278,103 without it showing up in that part of the form.

This is supposed to be a grassroots organization representing the families of children in charter schools.

And Eva Moskowitz consistently gives them compelling optics at their rallies with children, parents, and, now, teachers – dismissed from school for a “half day” that would get any superintendent in the state fired and possibly prosecuted.

Is Eva Moskowitz running a chain of schools or is she running the lobbying arm for her billionaire backers who see the expansion of the charter school sector as a means for profit and as a means to break public sector unions? Public school advocates certainly hold rallies to support public education, but we have to do so on weekends and after school hours for reasons that should similarly prohibit Success Academy and other charter schools from providing school hour props for “Families” For Excellent Schools.  Our appallingly lax rules for tax exempt organizations may allow for this, but there is no reason why our charter school authorizing bodies and the legislators who write school law should tolerate this.  We need our representatives in Albany to change charter school rules so that orchestrating the participation of students and teachers in obviously political events during what should be school hours is expressly prohibited.

And then maybe we should explore whether or not “Families” for Excellent Schools is actually within the allowable exempt purposes in the Internal Revenue Code, or whether it is there to use children, their families, and their teachers to enact policies that enrich its donors.

Boy, would that be interesting.

klein mosk

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Filed under "Families" For Excellent Schools, charter schools, Unions

The Passion of St. Arne

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will step down at the end of this year, and President Obama has announced that he will be replaced by former New York Commissioner of Education Dr. John King, Jr. as the acting Secretary of Education through the remainder of the administration.  Praising his often embattled Secretary of Education, President Obama said, ““He’s done more to bring our educational system, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the 21st century than anyone else….America will be better off for what he has done.”

We’ll leave that judgement to history.

As is often the case when prominent Washington figures prepare to ride off into the sunset (or out of town under cover of darkness depending on your point of view) it is time for “legacy punditry” to kick into overdrive and attempt to place Secretary Duncan in history.  Most of it is premature.  Quite a lot of it is insipid. And much of it just cannot resist creating a “balanced” narrative whether it is honest or not, which is where, Secretary Arne Duncan, Martyr of the Intransigent Teacher Unions comes into play.  Michael Grunwald of Politico.com wrote just such a piece last week, explaining the the choice of John King signals that President Obama has no intention of backing off any controversial reforms and strongly emphasizing union opposition to both Secretary Duncan and his chosen successor:

Duncan has been the public face of those differences; the National Education Association called for his resignation, while the American Federation of Teachers put him on an “improvement plan” like the ones school reformers have endorsed for incompetent teachers. He is leaving with U.S. graduation rates at an all-time high and dropout rates at an all-time low, but there has been a growing bipartisan backlash over some of his favored reforms, like the Common Core math and reading standards (derided as “Obamacore” by many conservatives) or the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations (derided as “test-and-punish” by unions). I recently mentioned to Duncan that it seems like the main theme uniting his reforms has been the idea that adults in the education system should be held accountable for making sure kids learn. “Just a little bit!” he responded.

That is, shall we say, a very charitable explanation of the central themes in Secretary Duncan’s reform portfolio of Common Core standards, high stakes testing, value added measures in teacher assessment, and favoritism for charter schools despite the ongoing and shocking series of scandals coming out of the sector.  Another way of explaining the Arne Duncan is approach is to ratchet up expectations without increasing supports, mistake things that are harder with things that are better, work hand in hand with one billionaire’s vision of education reform to push through or coerce over 40 states to adopt new standards largely written in secret, and ignore growing mountains of evidence that growth measures from standardized tests are not suited for individual teacher evaluation.  So while Mr. Grunwald may be right to point out union exasperation with Mr. Duncan and concern about his successor, there is a hell of a lot of context to that exasperation that is left out as he tries to balance his piece with current critics of both men.

So let me state it very clearly:  Secretary Duncan in Washington and Commissioner King in New York absolutely were not victims of the teacher unions.  They are victims of their own bull headed insistence in backing abjectly harmful policies even as the evidence mounted that they are harmful.

But that does not make a traditional Washington narrative where if there is one side, there must be an equal and equivalent other side, so the story of President Obama’s embattled Secretary of Education and his soon to be embattled next Secretary of Education is one where the reform side faces implacable resistance from unions seeking to maintain the status quo at all costs.  It is true that the National Education Association called for Arne Duncan’s resignation, and it is true that the American Federation of Teachers put him on a metaphorical improvement plan — last year.  After years of trying to work with education reform.

Both the NEA and AFT were early supporters of the Common Core State Standards and maintain high levels of support for the standards themselves to this day.  The NEA maintains this website on the CCSS, including a “ten facts” section that could have been penned by David Coleman himself, and the AFT is equally optimistic going back to a 2011 resolution urging good implementation.  Both national unions took initially positive views of potentially using student test score data as part of a “multiple measures” approach to teacher evaluation.  Part of the AFT’s 2010 statement on teacher evaluation and labor-management relations reads:

AFT teacher eval 2010

And from the NEA’s 2011 policy statement:

NEA teacher eval 2011

While both unions have repeatedly warned Secretary Duncan and the Obama administration that the push for more and more standardized testing was risking the entire education reform agenda, both unions were cooperative early on with key elements of education reform from the Obama White House: Common Core State Standards and the use of standardized testing data aligned with those standards in teacher evaluation.  It just so happens that these were key components in the White House’s Race to the Top grant competition and were conditions that had to be met to be granted waivers from the worst consequences of No Child Left Behind.  It also just so happens that another person, outside of the Cabinet, was pushing hard to get people on board to support the Common Core standards and growth models based on standardized tests:

Bill Gates

Not for nothing, both unions and their respective leaders at the time were listed as “important partners” when the Gates Foundation in 2009 announced $290 million in grants to 4 major school districts across the country to “develop and implement new approaches, strategies, and policies, including adopting better measures of teacher effectiveness that include growth in student achievement and college readiness; using those measures to boost teacher development, training, and support; tying tenure decisions more closely to teacher effectiveness measures and rewarding highly effective teachers through new career and compensation opportunities that keep them in the classroom; strengthening school leadership; and providing incentives for the most effective teachers to work in the highest-need schools and classrooms.”  The same announcement included the plan to spend $45 million on the Measures of Effective Teaching study – more or less to buy the research saying growth measures based on test data can be used in teacher evaluation and which, well, comes to that conclusion via some seriously dubious reasoning.  President of the AFT, Randi Weingarten, eventually backtracked from the support of growth measures in teacher evaluation, saying “VAM is a sham,” but this was in 2014, long after flaws with the Measures of Effective Teaching study’s conclusion began to be obvious.

So let’s be very clear: far from being antagonists to the Obama White House on education reform, the national teacher unions were key partners in critical elements of it from early on.  If Secretary Duncan’s simply G-d awful oversight of those initiatives (thoughtfully organized for careful consumption by Jersey Jazzman here) finally turned those organizations against him by 2014, it is strange to place union opposition at the center of the story.  In fact, despite the increased criticism and despite the late support for the parental Opt Out movement, teacher unions are STILL keeping their biggest leverage at bay.  Both the NEA and the AFT have already endorsed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for President despite her long standing connections with figures like John Podesta, who is running her campaign and was the founder of the Center for American Progress, a left of center think tank that is reliably in the pro-reform camp.  Further, with a few high visibility exceptions like the Chicago and Seattle strikes, neither union has been eager to take to the streets in opposition to the Duncan education agenda.  You don’t have to take my word for it, either.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics has an historic table of labor actions by any group of workers over 1000. The average public school teacher to pupil ratio in 2011 was 16 to 1 (this includes special education teachers and teachers of non-core classes), and there are 453 school districts in the country with more than 16,000 students – meaning if their teacher workforce went on strike, they’d be recorded in the BLM tables.  Considering how the education reforms most embraced by Secretary Duncan and the Obama administration have played out most contentiously in our large urban school systems, wouldn’t we be embroiled in job actions across the country if the AFT and NEA were the kind of opposition imagined by Michael Grunwald in his Politico piece?

I am sure that Secretary Duncan and his supporters both in the White House and in the education reform community would like to invoke the image of a martyr in a passion play, set upon by self interested forces seeking to maintain their privilege at the expense of the nation’s children.  But our national teacher unions do not fit that bill.  Far from opposing the reforms proposed from the Obama Department of Education, they embraced large portions of it and offered mainly precautions rather than opposition on other parts.  While elements of reform policies from this administration were involved in the Chicago Teacher Strike in 2012, there simply has not been labor unrest promoted by the AFT and NEA in the past 6 years.  Discontent among rank and file teachers has been growing in recent years, but union leadership did not really turn the corner on Arne Duncan until 2014. Value added measures are so poorly suited for teacher evaluation that the American Statistical Association urged policy makers not to use them, but AFT President Randi Weingarten’s opposition to VAMs preceded the ASA statement by only 3 months.

The reality is that Arne Duncan and John King did not merely run afoul of national and state level teacher unions – after years of doggedly pursuing policies that harm teaching – they ran afoul of parents and lawmakers as well.  Key aspects of Duncan and King’s favorite reforms are not favored by Americans and by parents even less so.  While charter schools enjoy public support, the Common Core standards, standardized testing, and using test data to evaluate teachers are widely viewed negatively.  67% of public school parents agree there is too much emphasis on standardized tests, and 80% of public school parents said student engagement was “very important” for measuring effectiveness compared to only 14% who said the same about test scores. 63% of public school parents disapprove of using standardized tests to evaluate teachers.

I’m not the only one noticing a theme here, right?  The problems that faced Arne Duncan and which John King faced in New York and will now face on a national level are problems born of loss of trust from parents, key stakeholders in education who turned around between 2009 and 2014 to find huge portions of their schools changing without even the least effort to include them in the conversation.  Secretary Duncan’s tin ear on these matters is almost legendary, but his successor may actually be worse, if that is possible. Dr. King could never communicate effectively with parents, leading to disastrous public meetings, and his refusal to discuss issues or entertain other viewpoints led lawmakers to bipartisan calls for his removal from office.  Mr. Grundwald’s piece in Politico suggests that Dr. King’s problem in New York were mainly with the union, but he fails to acknowledge that he left Albany just ahead of an angry mob of parents and legislators.

Sadly, it is the very background that Mr. Grunwald suggests should help Dr. King repair relationships with the nation’s teachers that actually prevents him from doing so.  Dr. King’s background story includes the loss of his teacher mother at a young age and his crediting teachers for turning around his life (Peter Greene rightly wonders if those same Brooklyn teachers, working under Dr. King’s policy environment, would have the room to set aside pacing guides and practice tests to nurture a child in need).  His allies in reform took to Twitter with #ISupportJohnKing to tout his life in education, but his particular life in education left him sorely unprepared for his role as NY Commissioner and even less prepared to be Secretary of Education.  Dr. King taught for three years, only one of them in a fully public school.  He then helped to found Roxbury Prep charter school in Boston before helping to found the Uncommon School network of no excuses charter schools, which relies heavily on out of school suspensions far in excess of local schools where they operate.  As a “no excuses” chain, Uncommon Schools can employ discipline methods disallowed by public schools and parents have no say if they disagree.  Dr. King was tapped from this sector to become Deputy Commissioner in New York and then ascended to the Commissioner’s office in 2011 at the age of 36.

Dr. King has almost no experience in his career where he was answerable to parents and the overlapping constituencies that are stakeholders in public education.  His style of charter school is almost entirely private in operation and parents unhappy with the way the school operates have no input via elected boards. He never served as principal of a fully public school or as a superintendent in a public school district where he was answerable to different people with sometimes opposing interests that needed to find compromise.  That lack of experience was evident in New York state as he increasingly avoided engaging parents and legislators, and there is no reason to believe he will change in the Secretary’s office.  While our new Secretary of Education will certainly be in for tough times from the national teacher unions, he will undoubtedly be in for equally or worse rough times from parents.

Inflexible unions versus the earnest reformers makes for good copy.  But it isn’t even half the story.

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Filed under Arne Duncan, charter schools, Common Core, John King, politics

Arming Teachers — Still a Bad Idea

It was never my intention to fold gun politics into this blog.  I prefer to keep my focus on issues directly related to schooling, school policy, and the politics of education.  Our nation’s seemingly intractable issue with gun violence in general and with mass shooting incidents in particular is an issue without direct connection to our schools except via tragedy.  The politics and policies involved with the issues are deeply complex with very hardline opponents on either side of the issue seemingly incapable to finding means of discussion with each other.  Pro-gun advocates in particular appear to have extremely well organized and highly influential lobbying groups that successfully prevent any action on new laws about guns, even ones that enjoy broad support among the American people, including gun owners.  To delve into the politics of guns in America would be to expand the scope and nature of my writing.

But then politicians seem intent to kick the issue right into my wheelhouse.

Presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson responded to the recent mass shooting at an Oregon Community College by joining fellow front runner Donald Trump in saying teachers should be armed in our schools, even in Kindergarten.  Dr. Carson said, “If I had a little kid in kindergarten somewhere I would feel much more comfortable if I knew on that campus there was a police officer or somebody who was trained with a weapon.  If the teacher was trained in the use of that weapon and had access to it, I would be much more comfortable if they had one than if they didn’t.”  Donald Trump also said, “Let me tell you, if you had a couple teachers with guns in that room, you would have been a hell of a lot better off.”  While Dr. Carson and Mr. Trump are regarded as buffoons by the media, they are not alone on this issue.  Wayne LaPierre, President of the National Rifle Association, spent a blessed few days after the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut being quiet – before holding a press conference that called for more armed people within our schools.  Legislators across the nation have either proposed or passed laws allowing teachers with concealed or open carry permits to bring their guns with them to work, and by 2014, two dozen states had such laws, although it is currently impossible to know how many teachers are taking advantage of their legal ability to bring weapons with them.  The logic is that armed teachers will either deter violence or allow the school staff to stop a shooter themselves.

While I will concede that some states, especially our large, mostly rural, western states, have much deeper gun cultures than most and have an environment where the presence of weapons is normalized and largely safe, and while I will concede the emotional appeal of giving teachers options beyond lock down in an emergency, I also have to state that vastly increasing the number of armed people in our schools is one of the worst ideas I have ever heard.  I was tempted to post any number of comedic responses to Dr. Carson’s and Mr. Trump’s bloviations on the issue or any number of cartoons of Mr. LaPierre’s logical pretzel maneuvers.

But this isn’t funny.

While we do not apparently know how many teachers are going to school armed every day (and we can dismiss as logically fallacious the claims that Utah’s current lack of a mass school shooting recently is the result of the “bad guys” not knowing who is armed), we do know realities about schools, and some of those realities are not pretty.  I’m going to rely upon anecdote for this, but I believe it is illustrative – and important.

My 7th grade year was the year bullies ruled our junior high school.  It was the early 1980s, and, frankly, the teachers and administrators did a terrible job of taking control of our school’s culture back, and by “a terrible job” I mean they did practically nothing.  I was bullied pretty relentlessly that year, as were many others, but nobody was bullied as relentlessly and as brutally as one of our classmates who eventually took his own life – which, perversely, finally gave the bullies something to think about and finally led to at least some relief from the physical and emotional abuse.

Sadly, that did not apply to our teachers who were targeted by the school’s bullies as well.

My 7th grade social studies teacher was especially hard pressed.  He was not a bad person.  Under better circumstances, I believe he would have been a moderately forgettable teacher – not greatly skilled, but knowledgeable and able to create an organized curriculum.  But with my classmates, he was pushed to his limits.  The bullies in the class were resolutely non-cooperative and sought any available chance to interrupt him, mock him, or otherwise undermine him with the rest of the class.  They stole from his desk and briefcase.  He found rude messages on his chalkboard.  He persevered throughout the year, but he was simply pushed to his limits by students who did not care how many times they were sent to the office and who saw him as an easy victim to torment – even after that same behavior aimed at a classmate had resulted in tragedy.  Perhaps because he was an adult, they thought different rules applied to the lessons they supposedly had learned earlier.  At the end of the year, they pulled a serious prank in class — setting off a firecracker — and he lost his control.  A desk was flipped over and one of the bullies found himself violently pushed against the wall by our teacher.

I can think of no circumstance in which the presence of a gun would have made that day better — for either our teacher, the class as a whole, or the 13 year old bully who had finally gone too far.

And here’s the thing – there are tens of millions of students in this country, taught by millions of teachers in over 95,000 public schools across more than 16,000 school districts.  This is hard work, and despite the fact that the vast majority of teachers manage their classrooms very well, at any given time during the school year there are teachers who are being pushed to the limit of what they can manage. For some of them, that might be their daily reality, but for many of them it could simply be a matter of a very bad day or even a few student for whom they have not found a way to connect or who refuse to allow a connection.  Even if this problem only exists in one classroom every 1000 schools at any given moment, that leaves almost 100 classrooms across the country with an adult who is under serious duress.  Under normal circumstances, this can managed — perhaps some such teachers are not capable of classroom management and need to seek different work.  Perhaps some simply need a colleague to give them a 5 minute pause to regather themselves.  Perhaps some need better structural supports within their schools from colleagues, administrators, and families.  Perhaps the culture of the school needs adult and student leadership aimed at stopping bystander acquiescence in the presence of bullying.  There are many possible solutions and interventions.

A gun in the classroom is not one of them.  And although we do not know the number of teachers in the states that allow them to carry a gun to school do so routinely, if Mr LaPierre and certain legislators have their way, it is only a matter of time before a classroom gun tragedy does not come into school from the outside.  I do not mean that every teacher under extreme duress in the classroom is likely to turn into a shooter. But think about what we know about the presence of guns: more permissive gun laws are associated with higher per capita rates of deaths by guns; death by violence is more likely among adults who purchase guns; guns in the home are associated with a modestly increased risk of homicide and a greatly increased risk of suicide; the mere presence of a weapon can increase the aggressive behavior of others.  If we follow the advice of Mr. LaPierre and if we understand some of the high stress situations that are possible in school – well, it doesn’t take much imagination, does it?

Even in the hands of teachers who are in full control, the “more guns in school” argument is problematic.  We know that in active shooter situations, even highly trained police officers frequently have very high miss rates.  In 2005, New York City police officers were on target in 34% of all shootings — and in distances of zero to six feet, 43% of the time.  This isn’t because they are terrible shots, but because in a high stress situation, even highly trained people miss – a lot.

This is likely why the FBI provides advice for the general population on what to do in an “active shooter” situation, and the advice is to run, hide, and to fight as the absolutely last choice.  As both a father and as an educator, this is what I expect from my children’s teachers and from myself and my colleagues.  Tasked with caring for a classroom full of students, responsible action is to take them to safety or to make certain they are hidden from harm as best as possible.  Since teachers are in charge of many others and must keep control of them during an inherently chaotic and frightening situation, the chances of ever getting to the “fight” stage is likely vanishingly small. An adult with 25 Kindergarten kids under her protection has much more critical tasks in a crisis.

There are some extraordinary circumstances I am willing to entertain.  We have schools in rural areas that are very far from emergency help.  It could also be plausible for a weapon to be in school under extreme security that can only be accessed by a highly trained security officer.  But the immediate call for “more guns” in schools is a call for more problems and distracts us from debates we ought to be having.  We should discuss what levels of security are needed at school entrances and exits that still allow us to teach.  We should figure out the most effective actions school teachers and administrators can take in a crisis situation to protect the children in their care.

We also need to stop pivoting directly into the “mental illness is to blame” argument after every mass shooting event, and set aside the pipe dream that psychologists can easily sort out potential shooters from the population.  We need to have an honest conversation about the consequences of ready access to firearms, and what laws might be able to slow down or prevent some people’s ability to get a gun in the heat of anger.

And we need politics in this country that is not so craven as to actually ban the CDC from studying the causes and impacts of gun violence or to subsequently block legal funding for that purpose.  Gun violence and mass shooting events are problems that are almost unique to the United States compared to our peer democracies.  Suggesting that teachers should deter that violence from entering our schools by arming themselves and then doing what even trained police officers have trouble doing during shootings is not only absurd – it is abjectly dangerous.

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Filed under classrooms, school violence, schools, teaching

Anti-Tenure – Union Busting FIRST, Students Second

Since Mr. Mehlhorn is on Twitter today trying to single handedly save the #ISupportJohnKing hashtag from teachers who know better, I thought a Throw Back Thursday post to the time I learned not to take most reform advocates seriously as honest and/or skilled arguers would be appropriate….

Daniel Katz, Ph.D.

One consequence of becoming active in social media and blogging is crossing paths with people that you would not normally encounter face to face. For example, among my normal Twitter feed comprised of classroom teachers, public school advocates, researchers and news sources, a certain gentleman was noticeably involved in several arguments. Shortly thereafter, he began following me on Twitter. His name is Dmitri Mehlhorn, and he is a former C.O.O. for Michelle Rhee’s Students First organization, and, suffice to say, he is a true believer in current education “reforms”. When Rhee announced that she was stepping down as the head of Students First, Mr. Mehlhorn penned this astonishing piece of apologia for The Daily Beast on her behalf, which despite saying she was “right about everything” cannot really name a measurable outcome of Ms. Rhee’s activism that has improved education. Mostly, he spends the article lamenting the attacks…

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Goodbye, Arne Duncan…Hello, John King

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the Chief Bull in a China Shop of education “reform,” will step down in December.  Having spent his tenure in Washington working more at the behest of private foundations and billionaire backed advocacy groups than on behalf of constituencies like students, parents, and teachers (who he frequently insulted), Secretary Duncan will leave behind a legacy of rapid and coercive change and a burgeoning parental rebellion against corporate education reform.  Under his watch, states were incentivized to jump head first into the Common Core State Standards before they were even finished, confusing and rapidly developed CCSS classroom materials proliferated across numerous states, states were bribed to adopt teacher evaluation systems that use standardized tests scores to judge teacher effectiveness, and states were promised new tests that would actually demonstrate students’ “college and career readiness” but were delivered the so far execrable Common Core aligned examinations rolled out across the country.  The National Education Association has previously called for his resignation, and the American Federation of Teachers placed Secretary Duncan on an “improvement plan.”  So it would seem obvious that teachers and parents across the country should breathe a sigh of relief to see the controversial Secretary, whose affability is vastly overshadowed by his skill at breaking things, depart.

Not so fast.

The same reports of Arne Duncan’s pending resignation also state that former New York State Commissioner of Education, Dr. John King, Jr. will lead the Department of Education as Acting Secretary, possibly for the remainder of President Obama’s term which ends in January of 2017.  To say that Commissioner King’s departure from the Empire State was unlamented would be a mammoth understatement.  While far quieter than his current boss in the Federal DOE, Dr. King is no less devoted to the central tenants of education reform today: Common Core standards, mass standardized testing, evaluation of teachers using standardized tests, and the proliferation of loosely regulated charter schools.  What Dr. King lacks in dynamic public persona, he more than makes up for in dogged determination to plow ahead with a fixed agenda regardless of feedback or evidence.  Indeed, the most constant skill he demonstrated as the head of the New York State Education Department was his ability to patiently let feedback and criticism wash right over him and have no influence on decision making whatsoever.  Head of Class Size Matters, Leonie Haimson, had this to say upon his leaving:

John King was the most unpopular commissioner in the history of NY State.  He showed no respect for parents, teachers or student privacy.  Ironically, he was intent on protecting his own privacy, and routinely withheld public documents; our Freedom of Information request of his communications with inBloom and the Gates foundation is more than 1 ½ years overdue.  His resignation is good news for New York state; hopefully he will be unable to do as much damage at the US Department of Education.

Sadly, as the new head of the US Department of Education, Dr. King will be in quite a position to do a lot of damage over the next 15 months.

Dr. King has a remarkable personal story and truly impressive academic credentials, including include a B.A. from Harvard University, a J.D. from Yale Law School, and both an M.A. and Ed.D. from Teachers College at Columbia University.  After short stints in charter schools, he was tapped as a deputy commissioner in New York at the age of 34 and succeeded to the Commissioner’s office only two years later.  Now, at the age of 40, with scant experience in teaching and school leadership, including no time at all as a superintendent of any school district of any size, Dr. King will take over the work of a Cabinet Secretary with far reaching influence over the direction of public education in the country.

Dr. King’s leadership of NYSED was made complicated not only by the controversial policies that he was tasked with putting into place, but also by the rapidity with which he pursued those policies and his consistent ignoring of all stakeholders.  As the Common Core standards, the EngageNY materials to support the core, and as the aligned testing all were put into place at a breakneck speed, legitimate concerns and criticisms from teachers, parents, and lawmakers went unheeded.  Principal Elizabeth Philips of PS 321 in Park Slope noted questions about Common Core testing that simply were not heard in Albany:

In general terms, the tests were confusing, developmentally inappropriate and not well aligned with the Common Core standards. The questions were focused on small details in the passages, rather than on overall comprehension, and many were ambiguous. Children as young as 8 were asked several questions that required rereading four different paragraphs and then deciding which one of those paragraphs best connected to a fifth paragraph. There was a strong emphasis on questions addressing the structure rather than the meaning of the texts. There was also a striking lack of passages with an urban setting. And the tests were too long; none of us can figure out why we need to test for three days to determine how well a child reads and writes….

…At Public School 321, we entered this year’s testing period doing everything that we were supposed to do as a school. We limited test prep and kept the focus on great instruction. We reassured families that we would avoid stressing out their children, and we did. But we believed that New York State and Pearson would have listened to the extensive feedback they received last year and revised the tests accordingly. We were not naïve enough to think that the tests would be transformed, but we counted on their being slightly improved. It truly was shocking to look at the exams in third, fourth and fifth grade and to see that they were worse than ever. We felt as if we’d been had.

Not only were the standards and tests confusing, Dr. King’s department set about creating cut scores for the exams that all but guaranteed only a third of students in the state would be marked as “proficient.”  Following growing complaints across the state, the Commissioner attempted to “engage” parents and other stakeholders in meetings across the state, but one of those erupted disastrously in Poughkeepsie.  At the time, Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch praised the Commissioner for his hard work, but she was subsequently quick to throw him under the bus when it became clear that NYSED had approved a charter school application submitted by a 22 year old who had lied up and down on his resume.  By the end of his tenure in the Commissioner’s office, there were bipartisan calls for his removal from office:

“For quite some time, Education Commissioner John King has closed off all meaningful conversation with parents, educators, administrators, and elected officials who have highlighted serious deficiencies in State Education Department policies,” Abinanti said. “He has exhibited a conscious disregard for their concerns.

“He should be listening, educating where criticisms are unfounded, and adopting changes where criticisms are valid,” the lawmaker continued. “His rigidity makes him unsuited for the position of Education Commissioner. Commissioner King should resign immediately.”

By the time, Dr. King left his office in Albany, he had created a great deal of chaos in New York schools, alienated every major constituency, and had created the conditions that led to the largest parental opt out movement in the history of standardized testing.

There you have it, America: your new Acting Secretary of Education.

67251-I-just-threw-up-in-my-mouth-a-Hslr

So will anything change in the United States Department of Education?  In a word: no.  Acting Secretary of Education Dr. John King, Jr. will not waver an inch on the Arne Duncan education agenda. Standardized testing will remain the sine qua non of educational quality and evaluation.  Charter schools will continue to be favored over fully public schools regardless of the evidence of their success.  The US DOE will continue to back efforts to break our national teachers’ unions.  And education policy will continue a thirty two year trend of demanding that our nation’s public schools be held fully accountable for creating economic opportunity for children in poverty without the rest of society being called upon to do a single thing to make those opportunities real.  The central fallacies of education reform in the modern era will remain cemented in place.

The only change we can expect is one of style.  While Arne Duncan blundered about in bull like fashion breaking all of the china, his successor will be quite content to quietly step on all of the shards to make certain they are good and broken.

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Filed under Arne Duncan, Common Core, John King, New York Board of Regents, politics, Testing

“Families” For Excellent Schools Sets a New Bar for Chutzpah

“Families” For Excellent Schools, the hedge-fund and foundation backed advocacy group that has waged constant war on New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio on behalf of the charter school sector in general and Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy brand in particular, has postponed a planned rally for September 30th due to weather concerns.  Ms. Moskowitz’s 34 schools had planned to cancel classes for the morning to boost attendance for the gathering in Cadman Plaza which was to feature Jennifer Hudson.  Organizers announced the rally will go ahead on October 7th, but it also comes in the wake of a controversial ad buy by FES in which they accuse Mayor DeBlasio of condemning African American children to inferior educations, presumably by merely failing to embrace 100% of what the charter sector in New York City wants and by not allowing Ms. Moskowitz to simply point at an existing school and say “gimme” any longer.

The ad, entitled “A Tale of Two Boys,” can be easily found, and goes like this: Two young boys, one white and one black, are being walked to school, passing each other on the street.  The ad declares that the white child lives in a wealthy neighborhood and has an excellent school and will probably go on to college.  The black child, however, lives in a poor neighborhood, is forced to attend a failing school and will not have a chance to go to college.  The ad ends by contrasting the two young boys with the white child reading happily in school and the black child looking morose and bored, and then it chides the Mayor for allowing this to happen and declaring that “half a million” children “need new schools”.

The ad, which is costing FES 100s of 1000s of dollars, drew immediate criticism from numerous sources for relying upon racial stereotypes and for using the circumstances of minority children to advocate “solutions” that serve the political agenda of conservative organizations (such as the Walton Family Foundation and the Broad Foundation) who have been pushing privatizing education and breaking teachers’ unions for years.  Bertha Lewis of the Black Institute flatly declared the ad racist, and Zakiyah Ansari of the Alliance for Quality Education said, “They are using a black face to push their political agenda, and they make the assumption that all black people are poor…They used our children in a race-baiting commercial.”

Criticism of FES is not limited to the new ad buy.  Writing for The Progressive, New York City teacher, activist, and author Jose Vilson notes about the now postponed rally:

Families for Excellent Schools (an awkward name since everyone wants excellent schools surely), prints “Don’t Steal Possible” on red shirts and hands them out across the city. When a whole host of inequitable conditions, including the stratification of rich and poor, steal possibilities (and lives) from children and adults of color on a daily basis, we won’t see similarly impassioned rallies for their rights. When parents have to take off work for a rally or risk their student getting transferred to a local public school that was stripped of funds for losing students to charter schools, that’s also stealing possible….

What’s most disenchanting about the upcoming rally, though, is that the rally doesn’t serve equal and equitable agency for school-aged children. It ultimately serves the agenda of a handful of people who won’t put their shoes to the cement alongside parents who just want their children to thrive in a good school. If the messaging comes from an unknown busybody and not from the very people affected by the schooling of their children, that’s another swindle our children cannot afford.

Allow me to grant FES a crumb of fact within all of this: educational opportunities are not equally or evenly distributed throughout this city, just as they are not within this country.  Our nation is deeply segregated by income which becomes in many cases a proxy for segregation by race.  A consequence of this is that communities with notable levels of poverty tend to have high levels of poverty, meaning that in order to function well their schools need substantial funding, funding which is denied to them by state and local sources.  Many such schools struggle to provide their students with what they need, leading to lower educational outcomes and diminished opportunities.  However, Jose Vilson rightly points out that many schools with high levels of poverty actually have excellent programs, skilled teachers, and involved PTAs, and they are unfairly deemed “failures” by groups like FES because of one measure only: standardized test scores.  If such schools were also fairly funded and given the resources and capacity to provide all of the services their students need, they could thrive even more.  This is hardly an isolated case.  The portrayal of schools serving mostly minority and mostly impoverished children as nightmares of uncaring and corrupt adults passing along children without concern is a vicious narrative used to justify poaching off as much as the public system into private hands as possible.  “Families” For Excellent Schools’ preferred solutions actually make matters worse for the majority of students.

FES has only a passing relationship with the truth, as demonstrated by Professor Bruce Baker of Rutgers University.  Dr. Baker thoroughly destroys the group’s argument that more money per pupil in fully public schools actually harms outcomes by demonstrating that the schools with the highest per pupil spending also have the highest concentrations of special education students and students qualifying for free lunch.  Unshockingly, schools with those populations of students need more money per student in general, and achieving higher value added as measured by tests absolutely takes more money.  Dr. Baker’s research further demonstrates that the charter school sector, as currently administered, acts in a parasitic manner, siphoning off students who have lower rates of high poverty, learning disabilities, and language learning needs and skimming the resources the fully public schools need to provide appropriate services for the children who remain.  While high need districts within New York are face serious underfunding by the state’s own formula for school aid, advocates for charter schools like FES simultaneously call for more resources to be funneled from those public schools and dare to call them “failures” for not thriving.
The nerve of FES running an ad accusing the mayor of allowing African American children to languish is failing schools should be obvious – and deeply offensive – to anyone informed on the issue.  There is no doubt that too many schools struggle, but “Families” For Excellent Schools has no actual interest in improving the educational outcomes for all students in New York City.  In fact, extending genuine opportunities to all students in New York City is completely antithetical to their operating principles and would damage their brand management strategies.
Nationwide, the charter school sector has well-crafted approaches to winnow down the families who even apply to enter open lotteries – even in states where they are mandated to use random lotteries to prevent them from cherry picking students.  While Stephanie Simon’s report for Reuters noted that well known charter operators such as KIPP and Success Academy use simple application forms, that does not mean they seek to retain all of the students who make it into their schools.  Success Academy is known, in particular for practices that drive away significant portions of their students as noted here by former New York high school principal and current Executive Director of the Network for Public Education, Carol Burris who noted how Success Academy 1 in Harlem opened with 127 first graders in 2009 but only 82 remained to begin 6th grade (Interestingly, Success CEO Eva Moskowitz denied the accusation of excessive attrition in the comments section, accusing Ms. Burris of ignoring data that showed charter retention was somewhat higher overall than in nearby schools within the city.  Of course, Ms. Moskowitz was citing data for the entire charter sector while Ms. Burris was looking at the original Success Academy, and Ms. Moskowitz consistently fails to acknowledge that district schools have to replace children who leave when new students arrive at any time and that every child who leaves her schools represents a family that sought out Success Academy deliberately.)
Families that do seek out and get to attend Ms. Moskowitz’s schools quickly learn what it takes to remain there.  A parent handbook for Success Academy obtained by FOIL requests shows that Success Academy requires weekend or additional “academy” sessions for repeat “violations” of its requirements.  Excused absences cannot be had for parental illness, transportation problems, or doctor appointments.  Parental reading is a daily requirement in K-2 with no exceptions as is parental oversight of homework – which is given only in English.  While parental involvement is an important aspect for many students’ achievement, Ms. Moskowitz is essentially mandating parents who are both competent in English and who are in work and family situations stable enough to meet those expectations.  A single parent working evenings and whose child care is a relative speaking limited English is going to be unable to fulfill these requirements.
 The Success Academy network is not precisely subtle that it neither has the time to work with students who need even minor behavioral accommodations nor is it willing to keep them.  Kevin Sprowal was a Kindergarten student in Success Academy who had never been in serious trouble for behavior in three years of pre-school was suddenly disciplined constantly to the point that he felt sick at the thought of going to school.  His mother, Katherine Sprowal, received a direct message from Ms. Moskowitz that she interpreted as a veiled urging to transfer, and the school psychologist flatly said her child should be in a different school.  It is hard to take the “open lottery” for Success Academy seriously when it immediately begins to filter out five year olds who turn out to have perfectly manageable attention deficit.
The network’s methods are plainly brutal in many respects. In a special report in April of this year (that, of course, drew indignant responses from Ms. Moskowtiz), The New York Times documented the extreme high pressure placed upon the network’s very young children, including practices that are, in turn, manipulative and plainly abusive:

But at Success Academy Harlem 4, one boy’s struggles were there for all to see: On two colored charts in the hallway, where the students’ performance on weekly spelling and math quizzes was tracked, his name was at the bottom, in a red zone denoting that he was below grade level….

Success has stringent rules about behavior, down to how students are supposed to sit in the classroom: their backs straight, and their feet on the floor if they are in a chair or legs crossed if they are sitting on the floor. The rationale is that good posture and not fidgeting make it easier to pay attention. Some teachers who had orderly classrooms and a record of good student performance said, after their first year, their school leaders allowed them to bend the rules somewhat, such as not requiring students to clasp their hands as long as their hands were still….

Success did not allow a reporter to observe test preparations, but teachers and students described a regimen that can sometimes be grueling.

To prepare for the reading tests, students spend up to 90 minutes each day working on “Close Reading Mastery” exercises, consisting of passages followed by multiple-choice questions. The last two Saturdays before the exams, students are required to go to school for practice tests.

Students who do well on practice tests can win prizes, such as remote-controlled cars, arts and crafts kits, and board games. Former teachers said that they were instructed to keep the prizes displayed in the front of their classroom to keep students motivated.

Students who are judged to not be trying hard enough are assigned to “effort academy.” While they redo their work, their classmates are getting a reward — like playing dodge ball against the teachers, throwing pies in the face of the principal or running through the hallways while the students in the lower grades cheer….

At one point, her leadership resident — what the network calls assistant principals — criticized her for not responding strongly enough when a student made a mistake. The leadership resident told her that she should have taken the student’s paper and ripped it up in front of her. Students were not supposed to go to the restroom during practice tests, she said, and she heard a leader from another school praise the dedication of a child who had wet his pants rather than take a break….

At Success Academy Harlem 1, as the original school is now called, 23 percent of the 896 students were suspended for at least one day in 2012-13, the last year for which the state has data. At Public School 149, a school in the same building, 3 percent of students were suspended during that same period. Statewide, the average suspension rate is 4 percent. (A spokeswoman for Success said that the suspension rate at Success Academy Harlem 1 has since declined to 14 percent, and that several of the newer schools had rates below 10 percent.)

Students who frequently got in trouble sometimes left the network, former staff members said, because their parents got frustrated with the repeated suspensions or with being called in constantly to sit with their children at school…

“We can NOT let up on them,” she continued. “Any scholar who is not using the plan of attack will go to effort academy, have their parent called, and will miss electives. This is serious business, and there has to be misery felt for the kids who are not doing what is expected of them.”

Public shaming.  Extremely narrow behavioral norms for children as low as five.  Extra school work as punishment for not meeting standardized testing goals.  Obsessive focus on standardized test preparation. Open and blatant bribes for children who excel on test based measures.  Children who can quickly adapt to this and perform on tests as expected are welcome at Success Academy.

Which brings us back to chutzpah.  “Families” For Excellent Schools will rally next week with Ms. Moskowitz’s students front and center providing the optics of minority children in need of great schools and opportunities.  They will claim to be there for the “half a million” children “trapped in failing schools” (last year, they claimed it was 143,000) and who need “new schools, now” – by which they mean charter schools in the Eva Moskowitz model.

But those charter schools – and Ms. Moskowitz’s schools in particular – do not want all of those children they will claim to speak for next week.  They want the children whose parents have stable enough work lives and English proficient enough that they can meet all of the out of school expectations without exception.  They want children who do not require any accommodations that would alter their extraordinarily rigid approach to early childhood behavior.  They want children who can immediately adapt at the age of five to excessive conformity, who can handle public shaming and extraordinary pressure, and who will emerge from that environment with high standardized scores.  Everyone else can go pound sand.  More specifically, everyone else can go back to their district schools which now have even higher concentrations of children in high poverty, with serious special learning needs, and with English language learning needs but which have fewer monetary and physical resources with which to help those children.  Far from speaking for half a million kids in need of great schools, “Families” For Excellent Schools will use 1000s of children as props to denigrate the work and efforts of 100s of schools and tens of 1000s of teachers and hundreds of 1000s of other children simply because of their test scores.  Worse, they will call for even more resources to be hoovered out of those schools – even though the “no excuses” charter sector in New York is 100% dependent upon having zoned schools that will take the children they refuse to accommodate.

“Families” For Excellent Schools does not give a damn about most of the children in New York.  Don’t let them get away with claiming they do.

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Filed under "Families" For Excellent Schools, charter schools, Social Justice, Testing