Category Archives: Arne Duncan

Betsy DeVos Broke the Ed. Reform Coalition – For Now

When Betsy DeVos was confirmed as United States Secretary of Education, she required an unprecedented tie-breaker vote by Vice President Mike Pence.  This was because all 48 Senate Democrats voted against her along with 2 Republicans.  A barrage of phone calls from constituents, her demonstrable ignorance about federal education policy, her utter lack of experience with running a large organization, and unanswered questions about her financial conflicts of interest could not scuttle her nomination – but it got closer than any cabinet nominee in recent memory.  Betsy DeVos took her office with a the only bipartisan consensus being the one against her.

On the one hand, DeVos presented a very reasonable target for opposition.  She really has no relevant experience whatsoever.  She is an ideologue rather than a expert who has made her “name” in education by leveraging her inherited wealth into buying the votes of state legislators.  While many school reform advocates favor shifting tax money to privately managed entities, DeVos appears to see the privatization of public money as a goal in and of itself without regard for outcomes.  Advocacy groups funded by her actually scuttled legislation in Michigan that would have kept failing charter schools from expanding, and she has demonstrated no interest in holding the overwhelmingly for profit charter sector in her home state accountable to much of anything, leaving Michigan sending $1 billion annually into a sector rife with self dealing and absent any oversight worthy of the wordDeVos favored policies have wrought additional havoc on Detroit Public Schools, leaving children wandering a landscape with a glut of seats which are distributed so unequally that getting to a school consumes hours of commuting time and where families are encouraged to “vote with their feet” – even if it means changing schools multiple times a year.

And if that record were not enough, DeVos gave Senators plenty of reasons to oppose her during her testimony which was peppered with evasions and displays suggesting she knows painfully little about federal education policy.  She whiffed a question on one of the central policy issues of the past decade.  She bobbed and weaved to avoid talking about accountability.  She appeared to have no knowledge about federal laws regarding educating students with disabilities.  She was pathetically glib about the question of guns in schools.  And when Senators sent her written questions to answer in further detail after her hearing, she plagiarized some of  her responses.  On top of all of that, DeVos was confirmed with votes from a raft of Republican Senators who reply on her cash for their campaign coffers.

So given this basket of deplorable qualities, it is not so surprising that her nomination went right down to the wire with not one Democratic vote and two Republicans breaking ranks as well.

Then again, maybe it is a bit surprising.

Democrats, after all, have been full members of the education reform club for some time now.  As Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post notes, Democrats who opposed DeVos’ confirmation have not been shy about joining the education reform coalition in the past two decades:

That’s why it was unusual when, in 2001, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, the liberal Massachusetts Democrat, gave critical support to the new conservative Republican president, George W. Bush, in passing a new education law called No Child Left Behind (NCLB). A bipartisan, they said, was to make sure public schools attended to the needs of all students, but the law actually became known for creating new “accountability” measures for schools based on controversial standardized test scores.

By embracing the NCLB system of high stakes testing coupled with dramatic consequences, Democrats enabled the move to privatize more and more public school money as charter schools proliferated in the wake of schools being labeled as failing.   Today, a cadre of Democratic politicians such as former Newark Mayor and now Senator Cory Booker, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and yes, former President Barack Obama are as dedicated to some or all of the central tenants of education reform as any Republican.  And as the debate over the Every Student Succeeds Act demonstrated, most Congressional Democrats are still in favor of high stakes accountability testing that is the centerpiece of education reform – and which provides the leverage necessary for Betsy DeVos to have wrought her special kind of chaos on her home state of Michigan and leaves her poised to try the same at a national level.

How Democrats got to this point is a layers and complicated situation.  Some followed the lead of many of the nation’s most venerable civil rights organizations who argued in 2001 and continue to argue that high stakes accountability is vital to make certain that states and communities do not ignore communities of color in allocating education resources.  This coalition split somewhat from the mainstream of education reform when the NAACP called for a moratorium on charter school expansion in the election last year, citing the widespread problems of fraud and lack of accountability in the sector, but the general premise that schools with high percentages of minority students will be neglected without high stakes accountability is powerful and rooted in centuries of systemic racism.  Representative Mark Takano, who is one of the few members of Congress who actually has teaching experience, also explained that his colleagues assume that accountability systems which make sense for banks and for legal entities work in public education:

First, I don’t have a lot of time to talk with my colleagues and have this kind of conversation. Second, the attention span of the average member is so short, and it’s hard to have a conversation that goes beyond a superficial level of knowledge.

So when you come to Congress with particular expertise, you tend to stick with your expertise regardless of the topic. Take Elizabeth Warren. I really love the woman. She makes my heart beat when I watch her on banking. When she says we should have broken up the big banks, I say, you go, Elizabeth Warren. But she has been a lawyer all her life. When she takes a position on education, she brings her experience as a lawyer on the issue of accountability. And to her, accountability is some sort of punishment.

Certainly there has to be some level of accountability. But if you liken education to bean counting, that’s not going to work. Likewise, if your background is in criminal justice or civil rights, you’re likely to want to remedy education problems by putting into place a law with all these hammers to correct the ways in which minorities are systematically excluded. But that same mentality isn’t going to work in education.

Representative Takano makes a compelling case that it is very difficult for Representatives and Senators who possess little practical or academic expertise in education to discern how incentives commonly used in legal and civil rights contexts will fail to achieve the same results in education.  Further, given the way that time and influence operate at the federal government’s level, it is extremely difficult for what teachers and administrators know about the system and the nature of teaching and learning to reach Congress.

In addition to these shortcomings, it is indisputable that other Democratic members of Congress have been enthralled by the enthusiasm for “big data” in the technology sector.  The Obama Department of Education was particularly convinced that large data sets from standardized tests could sort failing schools from thriving ones and incompetent teachers from brilliant ones, and this conviction was certainly aided by the enthusiasm of technology sector donors and philanthropists like Bill Gates.  Unfortunately, the enthusiasm for use of “big data” to rank and sort schools and individual teachers far outstrips the evidence that it can work the way Bill Gates thinks it can, and we are nearly three years past the American Statistical Association issuing a statement urging policy makers to not use value added measures in individual teacher evaluations.  Regardless, the Arne Duncan and John King education departments continued to plow time and resources into promoting those measures, leading President of the NEA, Lily Eskelen-Garcia to dub the department an “evidence-free zone.”

Yet another strain among Democrats has been the perspective of firm believers in the Clinton “Third Way” style of centrism – emphasis on free trade and market based solutions while defending some aspects of the social safety net and maintaining a left of center stance on many social issues.  It certainly has been an effective political stance in the West’s most conservative Democracy, and as the traditional labor support for Democrats has waned, it also attracted campaign donors from sectors of the economy that increasingly benefited from growing income inequality.  But it also brought the inevitable expectations that Democrats taking those donations would favor policies espoused by those donors – who have been hostile to organized labor and in favor of school privatization.  Third Way Democrats like Andrew Cuomo and Rahm Emmanuel have been dreadful for public schools, public school teachers, and public school students as a result.

It is therefore surprising that Betsy DeVos, with her lengthy portfolio of favoring school privatization, could not muster a single Democratic vote except when she is regarded as an almost living example of education reform’s reductio ad absurdum.  In this light, it is not that Betsy DeVos is wrong to favor school privatization per se, but she is wrong to favor it in the wrong way.  That construction was all over the statement opposing her nomination issued by “Democrats” for Education Reform, the hedge fund created advocacy group aimed at convincing Democrats to expand school choice and privatization:

“Outside of her commitment to parental choice, the hearing provided little insight on Mrs. DeVos’ vision for educating the 50 million American children who currently attend public schools. We are strong supporters of choice married with accountability, but as vital as parental choice is, choice alone is not an answer for ensuring the education of 50 million kids.

“In sum, the hearing did little to clarify concerns that progressive reformers have about Mrs. DeVos’ policy commitment to strong accountability and a strong federal role spanning the scope of the Education Department’s work, from finance equity and teacher preparation to higher education and civil rights. We do hope that at some point Mrs. Devos will speak more expansively about her vision for all public schools and the federal role in ensuring our schools work for our kids. But based on the record before us, we cannot support her nomination.

DFER positions itself as a voice of “progressive reformers,” and the education reform movement has certainly been skillful at positioning itself as a civil rights struggle.  DeVos’ enthusiasm for any privatized school, even those engaged in outright fraud, is simply too far for their brand.  Last month, before the DeVos hearings, Peter Greene astutely noted that charter school enthusiasts were concerned about her nomination to protect their brand, to protect the left flank of the reform coalition, to block vouchers, and because DeVos’ regulation free ideal is not actually good for many charters fighting over finite pools of money.  Jersey Jazzman further noted that reform Democrats were bemoaning the nomination of DeVos, but on the premise that the center “consensus” on accountability, school choice, and charters was working really well until Trump went over the top with his pick for Secretary of Education.  This is, as he noted, bollocks because like their counterparts on the conservative side of school choice, reform Democrats ignored evidence about the charter sector as a whole and never acknowledged how those with impressive test scores achieve them.

Consider this painful exchange between Virginia Senator Tim Kaine and DeVos during her confirmation hearing:

I honestly do not know how she got ten votes in the Senate after that, but we should examine the Senator’s question and its premise as well.  On the one hand, it is an excellent question, and given DeVos’ long record of favoring any private entity getting public money over any truly public school, she was either going to evade answering it, outright lie, or give an answer even Republican partisans could not have ignored.  On the other hand, Senator Kaine’s belief in “equal accountability” for all schools that receive public funds should break apart the education reform coalition if every Democrat actually believed that and meant it.  In Senator Kaine’s defense, his record is not one of unabashed love for charter schools, but plenty of Democrats love to tout urban charters schools, especially of the “no excuses” models that boast about high test scores.  The rationale is that those schools “prove” that “poverty is no excuse” and that all things being equal, urban schools can match suburban test performance.

The trouble?  All things are almost never equal.  Urban charters, even ones with high test scores, are not held to equal accountability with public schools and such accountability will never be accepted by the sector.  Even if they are spotted being free from union work rules, charters inherently draw from a pool of families more attentive to the system than fully public schools can guarantee, and the “no excuses” charter schools championed by Arne Duncan, John King, and a raft of Democratic politicians use restrictive conduct codes and heavy use of out of school suspensions to force either quick conformity by students or quick withdrawals.  This shows up in the research all of the time, and the end result are schools claiming that they have the “same” students as their host districts but which in reality have fewer of the students with the greatest needs, leaving district schools to care for a population that is even more high need with fewer resources with which to do it.  The equal accountability that Senator Kaine favors does not exist and will not be accepted by school choice advocates, even those on his side of the aisle, unless something much more earth shaking than Betsy DeVos’ tenure in Washington happens.

So, for now, the education reform coalition has split, but mostly it has split into conservatives hoping to achieve long thwarted dreams of school vouchers and so-called “progressive” reformers asserting that Betsy DeVos “goes too far”without questioning any of the underlying premises of high stakes accountability and privatization.  Unless Democrats get themselves a genuine education on the core issues facing our school system, it is entirely likely that the education reform coalition will just bide its time and re-emerge as strong as ever.

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Filed under Arne Duncan, Betsy DeVos, charter schools, Cory Booker, Dannel Malloy, DFER, Drumpf, ESSA, Funding, John King, NCLB, politics, Social Justice, Testing, Unions, VAMs

Secretary of Privatization

For almost 16 years, across two administrations of different parties, America’s teachers have watched federal education officials embrace destructive policies.  President George W. Bush ushered in the era of test and punishment based accountability under the No Child Left Behind Act.  President Barack Obama entered office with promises of relief from unrealistic expectations and punitive incentives – only to double down on testing’s importance by favoring value-added teacher evaluations and to promote privatization through the charter school sector which has increasingly placed portions of our educational commons into hands avoiding public oversight.  With a Secretary of Education under President Obama who declared that Hurricane Katrina was the “best thing” to happen to New Orleans schools because the recovery turned the entire city over to privately managed charters, teachers could be forgiven for wondering how anything could get worse regardless of who won the election this month.

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After floating a raft of names – from former rival and now designated Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Dr. Ben Carson to New York City charter magnate Eva Moskowitz to former Washington D.C. School Chancellor and Patron Saint of Firing Teachers  Michelle Rhee to actually qualified school choice advocate and Hoover Institute Fellow Dr. Williamson Evers – Donald Trump has settled upon Michigan billionaire and school privatization zealot Betsy DeVos as his nominee for Secretary of Education.  Friends have asked me directly what I think about this pick, and I have frankly responded that if Ms. DeVos can accomplish for the nation’s schools what she has manage to do in Michigan by leveraging her fortune to buy her desired results, then we are well and truly screwed.  Ms. DeVos has never attended a public school, never sent her children to a public school, never studied education at any level, never taught a day in her life.  What she does bring to the post is an unparalleled zeal for turning as much of our public schools as possible over to unregulated hands and for sending as much public school money as possible to private and religious institutions.  With her appointment, the Trump administration’s priorities for our nation’s schools are made crystal clear: to hell with quality, to hell with equity, to hell with everything except privatization.

As early as 2011, Betsy DeVos was well recognized as an influential if stealthy advocate for school choice, especially in the form of vouchers.  Such efforts are always couched in terms that emphasize empowering parents and using competition to make all schools better, but the agenda has little to do with excellent education for all and much more to do with taking the nation’s $600 billion school budget and getting it into private hands.  Having failed in 2000 to convince Michigan voters to institute vouchers, DeVos altered strategy and backed legislators and bills that favored vouchers and privatization in various states.  Forming All Children Matter in 2003, DeVos quickly spent $7.6 million in the first year to get electoral results in favor of privatization.  If you’ve ever heard a conservative politician use the term “government schools” instead of “public schools,” you have Betsy DeVos and her husband (and Amway fortune heir) Dick to thank for it.  It turns out that slapping the label “government” on any publicly funded good is an effective way to bend public opinion against it.

The DeVos family was also deeply involved in repackaging vouchers from their original racist origin as a way to get white children out of desegregation and into an “only hope”for urban children “trapped” in “failing schools.”  The problem with that strategy is that with years of evidence in from voucher programs like Milwaukee there simply isn’t evidence that vouchers do very much for their alleged beneficiaries – although they do manage to get public money into private hands fairly well. In fact, in Milwaukee, students receiving vouchers performed worse than their counterparts in the city’s public schools.  The DeVos affinity for vouchers is not limited to secular institutions, and, they have deep and lasting ties to conservative Christian activists who see secular public education as an out and out enemy that has to be ended.  Betsy DeVos has served on the board of the Acton Institute which has featured events by Christian Dominionist Gary North who is on record writing, without irony: “So let us be blunt about it: we must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political, and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.

The DeVos record in her home base of Michigan should be on great concern to those who see public education as a public good that should not be turned over to profiteers.  Her efforts in Michigan and nationally aim to influence policies steering as much money as is possible away from fully public schools and into “competition” in the form of charters.  The Michigan experiment has been especially woeful for public education as the state’s charter sector is stupendously unregulated and an eye-watering 80% of charter schools are run by for-profit management corporations that don’t even try to hide that they are self dealing.  The Detroit Free Press reported in August that the state is sending $1 billion in tax payers’ money to charter schools but cannot be bothered to hold them accountable for much of anything:

Wasteful spending and double-dipping. Board members, school founders and employees steering lucrative deals to themselves or insiders. Schools allowed to operate for years despite poor academic records. No state standards for who operates charter schools or how to oversee them.

And a record number of charter schools run by for-profit companies that rake in taxpayer money and refuse to detail how they spend it, saying they’re private and not subject to disclosure laws. Michigan leads the nation in schools run by for-profits.

According to The New York Times, a 2010 law backed by a DeVos funded group pushed to expand charters, but DeVos’ group also blocked provisions that would have prevented failing charters from expanding and replicating.  Since that law passed, the number of charters in Michigan that are among the state’s lowest performing schools has doubled.  Another story in the Times illustrates the chaos this has unleashed upon students and families in Detroit in the name of “empowering” them with choice.  Decades into the charter school experiment and more than a decade into the DeVos influenced school landscape, Detroit has 30,000 more school seats than it needs and schools go into heated competition to fill those seats in time to get state money determined by headcount.  Charter school seats are concentrated near downtown while more impoverished neighborhoods with more school aged children have fewer schools – requiring those seeking choice to travel significant distances in a city of 140 square miles.  Many charter operators get around the requirements to have open lotteries by layering the application process with burdensome paperwork, unusual enrollment periods, or by advertising in sources they know the city’s most impoverished families do not read.  The result is that a great many families seeking charter seats end up at poorly run schools in Michigan’s unregulated environment and end up switching schools multiple times in the elementary years — an environment that Tonya Allen, President of the Skillman Foundation, compared to “The Hunger Games” for schools.

Perhaps so much disruption would be deemed worthwhile if Michigan had anything of merit to show for it.  Unfortunately, such merit is hard to see even after so many years of DeVos favored school choice policies.  Consider Michigan’s 8th grade results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in both mathematics and reading.  In math, Michigan’s students in 2015 showed no improvement at all over students from 2000, and while the gap between White and Black students did narrow from 45 points in 2000 to 35 points in 2015, the gap between students in poverty and student not in poverty was essentially unchanged in the same period.  Meanwhile, 8th grade reading scores were even worse – with 8th graders in 2015 also performing no better overall than in 2000, but with the gap between Black and White students remaining unchanged in that time and the gap between students in poverty and students not in poverty growing from 13 points to 23 points. The lack of quality control and oversight in Detroit is so bad that even national philanthropists eager to promote school choice and charters routinely pass over the Motor City.

Policies and politicians favored by Betsy DeVos and backed by her considerable resources have unleashed chaos in Michigan schools, leading to a charter school environment that even some charter school boosters find difficult to justify.  And the result of her efforts since the the early 2000s is a school system that isn’t actually performing any better than before she managed to leverage her fortune in favor of unregulated choice and charter school proliferation.  No wonder then that, although she has her fans among pro-privatizing politicians like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, she is also regarded as highly dangerous from others in her home state.  The President of Michigan’s state board of education said, “It’s like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse, and hand-feeding it schoolchildren….Devos’ agenda is to break the public education system, not educate kids, and replace it with a for-profit model.”  A Democratic state senator from Deerborn Heights added, “The fact that she now is going to have a platform to do that on a national level should be of great concern to everyone in this country.”

If confirmed as Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos will almost certainly be in charge of whatever emerges from Donald Trump’s promise to allocate $20 billion to expand school choice in the form of charter schools and voucher plans.  In his announcement of the plan, Trump even used DeVos favored code language by referencing students trapped in “failing government schools,”  and he thanked Ron Packard, the CEO of the for-profit charter company that runs the failing charter school that served as the backdrop for his speech. It is almost impossible to imagine optics that better sum up Betsy DeVos’ record on education: coded language used to demean our educational commons, a for profit charter management company, and a school that is failing to improve students’ measured performance.  In fact, the only person in the story likely to be doing very well is Mr. Packard himself who used to pull in a salary of $5 million to run the K12 Inc. family of for profit virtual charter schools (with an educational record so dubious that the NCAA refuses to accept credits from the schools) and whose Pansophic Learning is now the largest for profit operator of charter schools in Ohio.  Secretary designate DeVos must love it.

Cynics – and even some optimists – might doubt just how much damage a DeVos led Department of Education could inflict.  After all, the nation spends over $600 billion annually on public education, but only 9% of that is federally funded which is why Trump’s voucher and choice proposal assumes, very optimistically, that states will kick in over $100 billion additionally over the $20 billion from the federal government.  The problem with this view is that while the federal government does not foot a lot of education money, it can unleash a hell of a lot of chaos with the money it does spend via incentives and regulation.  For example, Title 1 funds, intended for schools serving high percentages of economically disadvantaged students, reached 56,000 schools serving 21 million students in 2009-2010.  Luke Messer, a Republican Congressman from Indiana who is a friend of Mike Pence and who founded the Congressional School Choice Caucus already suggested that some or all of the money for Trump’s school choice program could come from the $15 billion the federal government spends on Title I.  Grabbing money intended to help public schools that serve the nation’s most needy children and turning it into an uncontrolled experiment in vouchers and unregulated charter schools is exactly the kind of project Betsy DeVos would relish.  And even if she only got her hands on a fraction of that sum, nobody should forget the degree of chaos Arne Duncan managed with only $4 billion in Race to the Top funds at his disposal.

In the end, Ms. DeVos may be frustrated less by available funds and a willing Congress than by her own preference for pulling strings outside the limelight.  As far back as 1997, she openly admitted that she donated money to Republican politicians in full expectation of getting a return on her investment:  “I have decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect something in return. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment.”  But it is  a lot easier to buy the fealty of selected politicians and to hand them legislation to pass into law and to do so from the wings than the try to lead a national effort to convince Americans to gut their public schools.  Despite 30 years of a relentless school failure narrative, Americans tend to rate their local school systems fairly highly, and parents with at least one child in school rate them higher still.  If Betsy DeVos is going to leverage the promised money for school choice into substantial change, she will have to do something she has never really done – step into the sunlight and talk to us regular folks about why we should gamble our children on her ideas that have such a remarkably poor record.

I doubt that she has the skill set to spread her ideas to America’s suburban schools, but if Congress actually does give her a free hand with Title I, she will have the power to deal great harm to America’s poorest children.  As Secretary of Privatization, she can turn many more of our urban schools into profit centers that enrich private interests far more efficiently than they care about the children within them.  Expect more people like Ron Packard to cash in while our nation’s children and teachers suffer.

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I told you suckers what I was about, didn’t I?

 

 

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Filed under Arne Duncan, charter schools, Corruption, Drumpf, Funding, NCLB, politics, School Choice

How Far Have We Sunk? Pretty Far.

At the end of April, Washington Post education reporter Valerie Strauss wrote in her Answer Sheet blog that the Harley Avenue Primary School in the town of Elwood, N.Y. recently canceled its annual Kindergarten play so they could dedicate more time to making certain the children are prepared for “college and career.”  The cancelled show was to be performed in the middle of May, and a letter to parents explaining the rationale was dated April 25th of this year – so there is little chance that this is actually an elaborate April Fool’s prank.  In the text of the letter, the school told parents:

The reason for eliminating the Kindergarten show is simple. We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers. Please do not fault us for making professional decisions that we know will never be able to please everyone. But know that we are making these decisions with the interests of all children in mind.

A Kindergarten play. Canceled. Because Kindergarten children need to be prepared. “For college and career.” And the play would taken too much time away from THAT.

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We can certainly start with the obvious – for five year olds, putting on a play DOES help them learn “valuable lifelong skills.”  Working together, learning dialogue and songs, taking direction, expressing themselves, pushing their boundaries, taking risks — in what possible universe are these not fantastic learning experiences for Kindergarten children?  If there is a better recent example of missing the forest for the trees, I haven’t seen it.

On a more serious note, this also rings horribly of how terribly awry childhood has been going in this age of standards and “rigor” and high stakes.  Not only are we pushing academic tasks to younger and younger ages where they are simply inappropriate, there is growing evidence that it actively harms children to do so:

New research sounds a particularly disquieting note. A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system, published in September, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills. The researchers told New York magazine that overreliance on direct instruction and repetitive, poorly structured pedagogy were likely culprits; children who’d been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning.

Very young children need play.  This is hardly in dispute.  But in recent years, there has been increasing focus on test based performance by third grade that has created pressure to ensure children are “ready” by increasing academics in earlier and earlier grades.  While very young children are capable of learning skills and knowledge that will feed into academic performance later on, they need to learn it in ways that actually meet their needs.  By the time a Kindergarten class cannot spare the time to put on a show — which, incidentally, will teach the children a lot – because of pressure to focus on “college and career” readiness, then something is horribly, horribly wrong.

It is also bizarre that a community like Elwood would feel this kind of pressure.  According the United States Census,  47.9% of the community residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher compared with statewide number of 33.7%.  Median household income in Elwood is $108,401 compared to a statewide median of $58,687, and only 2.7% of the population lives below the federal poverty line while the average is 15.6% statewide.  The median value of owner occupied homes in Elwood is $478,300 while the statewide median is $283,700.  Elwood also compares favorably to Suffolk County on Long Island as a whole.  In Suffolk County, 37.5% of the population has a B.A. or higher, the median household income is $88,323, and the median home value is $376,800.

Elwood’s public schools appear to be doing well also.  The New York State Education Department’s data portal shows exceptional performance on state standardized tests in Elwood.  Harley Avenue Elementary is a K-2 school which feeds into James H. Boyd Elementary’s 3-5 program. Although 25% of students opted out in 2015, the proficiency numbers between the 2014 and 2015 tests do not appear different in any appreciable way.  In the 2014 tests, 15% of students scored a level 4 in the ELA exams, and 38% scored at level 3 while statewide averages were 9% and 22% respectively.  In math, James H. Boyd students also out performed state average with 23% scoring level 4 and 34% at level 3 in 2014 while statewide those numbers were 14% and 22%.  While these numbers are not the highest in Suffolk County, they are well above the average.

So – we have a small town.  Better educated, wealthier, and performing better on state assessments than other communities in its county and state.  But they cannot spare time in Kindergarten to put on a play.  And while this example has raised many eyebrows, it goes without question that the high stakes environment has taken an even heavier toll on minority students in the form of narrowed curricula and ever increasing pressure to teach to the test.  Sadly, we knew this even before No Child Left Behind was passed as evidence from the so-called “Texas Miracle” showed diminished quality in education at all schools, but especially at Latino majority schools. Our ethnic minority and economically disadvantaged students were the canaries in the coalmine showing us how high stakes testing diminishes educational quality.  By the time towns like Elwood are figuring it out, we’ve pretty well killed every canary we have.

Something else stands out here as well.  Administrators in Elwood have taken significant flack from all sorts of critics for both canceling the show and then for justifying it on the grounds that those tiny Kindergarten kids need to be subjected to more rigor and more college and career readiness.  And yet, those administrators did not invent the policy environment they work within.  In today’s zero sum game of education as competition, perhaps Elwood’s administrators are looking around at the nearby schools that “outrank” them and figuring they need to up their game in order to look good enough.  The pressure to think like that is not exactly new, but recently it has increased dramatically, and three men bear far more responsibility for that than the public school administrators in Elwood:

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Bill Gates spent 100s of millions of dollar rushing the Common Core State Standards into public schools without anyone having time to prepare schools and teachers for them or even knowing if they were actually any good.  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan famously said that he thought “We should be able to look every second grader in the eye and say, ‘You’re on track, you’re going to be able to go to a good college, or you’re not,’ ” – signaling how obsession with standardized testing was only going to get worse in the country.  Chief architect of the Common Core, David Coleman, expressed his disdain for writing in school that detracts from analysis and his ideas of rigor, saying that “As you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give a s— about what you feel or what you think.”  These three men, with their impatience, their obsession with standardized testing data, and their general disdain for anything that doesn’t match their priorities have inflicted great damage on American public education, wielding influence far beyond their wisdom.

So if Kindergarten children in Elwood, New York cannot have a play because they need to be “college and career ready,” we should aim our disgust at the people who invented that phrase and made 50 million school aged children chase it without a single public debate on the issue.

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ADDENDUM: When the article from The Washington Post was forwarded to me, I failed to notice that it was dated from April of 2014. Unfortunately, as an Elwood parents affirms in the comments, the annual Kindergarten play has not been reinstated.  I hope the children of Elwood get a return to sanity in the near future.

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Filed under Arne Duncan, child development, Common Core, Data, Gates Foundation, Testing

Preparing for the Post-NCLB World

Barring substantial shifts in the political landscape, both houses of Congress are expected to vote on the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act which has just come out of the conference committee.  If passed in both the House and the Senate, the bill, dubbed the Every Student Succeeds Act, is expected to be signed into law by President Obama before the end of the year.  This will officially usher us into the post No Child Left Behind era, and, as is typical with legislation nowadays, there is something in the final product to frustrate and worry pretty much everyone.  While ESSA represents tangible improvements over the widely hated NCLB, there are worrisome elements in it and a great deal of larger and more fundamental aspects are handed over to the states where we can probably expect prolonged fights over implementation.

Nineteenth Century lawyer-poet John Godfrey Saxe noted, “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.”  He probably had something like the agonizing and lengthy wrangling over rewriting the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in mind when he said it, especially this final stretch when lawmakers will vote on a 1000 page long conference bill they have not read thoroughly.  And, indeed, it seems some choice bits got chopped up and inserted into this final version, notably a chance for private financial interests to make money on public education dollars.

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Consider language for Title I, Part D for prevention and intervention programs for children and youth who are neglected, delinquent, and at risk, section 1424 allowing funds to go to “pay for success initiatives,” and similar language in Title IV, Part A.  ESSA defines a “pay for success initiative” as a “performance-based grant, contract, or cooperative agreement awarded by a public entity in which a commitment is made to pay for improved outcomes that result in social benefit and direct cost savings or cost avoidance to the public sector.”  The gist is that private entities can put up money as a loan for a public program and if they save money in the process of being more effective or more efficient than the public sector, they can keep a portion of the money saved. This is the kind of creative use of private philanthropy and financing that is supposed to incentivize deep pocketed entities to do good – and end up doing right well in the process.

Goldman Sachs experimented with the model in Utah by financing preschool for 595 additional children in a well regarded program, 110 of whom were expected to need special education services. After a year in the Goldman sponsored intervention, only 1 student entering Kindergarten was found to need those services, and the financial giant will now be paid $2500 per pupil per grade without special education services until students reach sixth grade when the amount of money will go down. That’ll come to $1.9 million dollars on top of the original money loaned and paid back.

Fred Klonsky, a retired Chicago teacher and current blogger, is highly skeptical both of the payments back to Goldman and of the claim that 109 students out of 110 were no longer in need of special education services after a year in preschool.  I have to admit that I share that skepticism and certainly think that social impact bond financing allowed in ESSA will require very vigilant monitoring to make certain outfits like Goldman Sachs are not creating perverse incentives to simply overlook a need and “save” money.  They are a largely unproven vehicle for creating social change, although some are organized to minimize risk for private capital while giving them a lucrative upside.  It isn’t hard to imagine who lobbied to get that language inserted into the Title I and Title IV changes then.

For that matter, as Mercedes Schneider notes in her first assessment of the bill, charter schools get a big, wet kiss, and there are grants that read as friendly to Teach for America’s role in “teacher preparation”.

So – sausage.

That said, there are many changes to the current education landscape contained in ESSA, many of them positive.  The Badass Teachers Association has a solid look of the good and the far less than good in the bill.  On the troubling side, ESL students are potentially labeled using very crude means, encouragement of merit pay, misplaced confidence in adaptive assessments and misgivings that “individualized instruction” will lead to more time in front of screens rather than with teachers, and, of greatest concern, continuation of NCLB’s requirement of annual testing of every child each year between grades 3 and 8 and once in high school and it caps alternate assessments for disabled students.  However, ESSA spins much more authority for accountability and assessments to the states, includes mechanisms to improve teacher workplace conditions, prohibits the federal DOE from interfering in state laws regarding parents opting children out of state assessments, and there are positive developments for homeless children, impact aid, Native American education, state innovation and local flexibility.

Most notable, however, are the repeated smack downs of the federal Department of Education and clear prohibitions on the Secretary of Education taking an active role in shaping state policies regarding standards, assessments, and accountability systems.  Consider this from Title VIII, section 8526:

No officer or employee of the Federal Government shall, through grants, contracts, or other cooperative agreements, mandate, direct, or control a State, local educational agency, or school’s specific instructional content, academic standards and assessments, curricula, or program of instruction developed and implemented to meet the requirements of this Act (including any requirement, direction, or mandate to adopt the Common Core State Standards developed under the Common Core State Standards Initiative, any other academic standards common to a significant number of States, or any assessment, instructional content, or curriculum aligned to such standards), nor shall anything in this Act be construed to authorize such officer or employee to do so.

I believe that when historians write the story of the Test and Punish Era of public school reform, this language will be noted as the “Take A Seat, Arne” Act of 2015.

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Education Week noted a week ago that “accountability hawks” were already unhappy with the information coming out of the conference committee.  Sandy Kress, an original designer of NCLB, worried that states were going to be allowed to create accountability systems not based on student learning.  Chad Aldeman, a partner at Bellweather Education Partners, worries that states will give in to inertia and not push for improvements for their most at risk students.  Meanwhile, the National Association of Secondary Schools Principals applauded the available framework, noting the removal of Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements and “unworkable” school turnaround models.  The National Governors Association announced full approval for the conference bill, saying that it “restored the balance” between Washington, D.C. and the states.

So – is NCLB well and truly dead?

Not exactly, no.

While some of the worst provisions of NCLB have finally had a stake driven into their hearts, the states are still required to test and the create accountability systems, so the upshot is that making sure both those tests and the systems are fair and based upon what schools and children need will now have to be done state by state.  Monty Neill of FairTest notes that this will not be a simple matter: States still have to rank schools largely on test scores, there is ambiguity on how “additional indicators” for English Language Learners will be weighted compared to test scores, states have to identify the bottom 5% of schools based on test scores and intervene with measures designed by the state.  In other words: whether or not schools find themselves under a test and punish regime or in a monitoring and support system will largely depend upon how states treat their newly reclaimed authority.

There is no reason to believe that the advocates of test and punish will pack up shop now that the Secretary of Education has been severely limited.  After all, federal help was useful for the spread of the Common Core State Standards, the testing consortia, and the adoption of growth measures in teacher evaluation, but it was hardly to only entity to help.  Both the National Governors Association and the National Council of Chief State School Officers were on board with the Common Core State Standards and the shared assessments.  The Gates Foundation is certainly active in state and local education policy, using grants and other leverage to push through favored policies. Powerful private interests have financial stakes in declaring public schools failures and turning them over to private management.  They give lavishly to their allies in state government.  Think about governors like Andrew Cuomo of New York, Dannel Malloy of Connecticut, Chris Christie of New Jersey, and Scott Walker of Wisconsin – advocates of our fully public schools have our work cut out for us.

So – roll up your sleeves wherever you live and work.  This has only just started.

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Filed under Arne Duncan, charter schools, Chris Christie, Common Core, ESSA, Gates Foundation, NCLB, Opt Out, PARCC, politics, standards, Testing, VAMs

Who Was The Last “Education President”?

On September 25th, 1988, Vice President George H.W. Bush, then the Republican nominee for President, was in a debate with his Democratic Party rival, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, and declared that he wanted to be “The Education President.”

I want to be the education President, because I want to see us do better. We’re putting more money per child into education, and we are not performing as we should. […] And I would like to urge the school superintendents and the others around the country to stand up now and keep us moving forward on a path towards real excellence.

Eventually, the Republican nominee would become President George H.W. Bush, and his education agenda was a continuation of the path forged under Ronald Reagan that led to the era of test-based accountability.  Presidents and Presidential aspirants have all set their sights on making an impact on our nation’s education system, whether it was Bill Clinton calling for 90% graduation rates and “meaningful” national examination standards, or George W. Bush claiming standardized test scores were stagnant and promoting new accountability for teachers and students – including a system of rewards and punishments that would become known as No Child Left Behind, or Barack Obama promising more aid to the neediest schools, touting merit pay plans, and decrying too much focus on testing.

But who was the most recent occupant of the Oval Office who deserves the title “The Education President”?  When was the last time an American President signed into law an education bill that has had a substantial, sustained,  and positive impact upon education?

Gerald Ford.

This is not sarcasm because it was President Gerald Ford who, on November 29th, 1975, signed PL94-142, also known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, into law.  President Ford issued a signing statement expressing his concern that the law would cost too much, but over its 40 year history and re-authorization as the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), the legislation has improved educational opportunities and outcomes for millions upon millions of students who had previously faced neglect and discrimination within school.  While the law continuously needs reflection and improvement, especially in the realm of federal funding which has never approached the 40% promised by Congress in 1975, the legislation remains a landmark that provides the basis for a vastly expanded mission for our nation’s schools and progress towards fulfilling opportunity for all.

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PL94-142 was not an isolated case of federal legislation signed by the President improving our nation’s schools.  President Richard Nixon signed the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that included Section 504, providing protection from discrimination based on disability when an employer or organization receives federal funding.  Section 504 meant that schools could not bar students with physical and mental impairments from receiving an education and required them to provide a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) to all qualified students.   Prior to signing this legislation, President Nixon signed the Education Amendments of 1972 which included Title IX, stating, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

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President Lyndon Johnson, following the landmark Civil Rights Act, signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) into law on April 11th, 1965.  The original law provided federal funds for research, strengthening state departments of education, and, perhaps most importantly, funding to assist the schooling of low income students, and among its earliest amendments were provisions for handicapped children and bilingual education programs.  The Title I provisions, especially, noted the inequitable ways in which schools are funded using property tax revenues that immediately place communities with high percentages of low income families at a disadvantage.  Although the ESEA has since been subsumed by the standardized test based accountability regime of the 2001 amendments known as No Child Left Behind, the original legislation was intended to help with President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” by bringing resources that only the federal government could leverage to schools serving our neediest children.

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Indeed, that focus upon using federal reach and the enforcement of civil rights to expand resources available to schools while requiring them not to discriminate upon race, gender, language spoken, or disability status marked a robust period of education legislation premised upon equity and the recognition that certain populations of students were historically marginalized and required direct action of the law aimed at states and municipalities that might have otherwise ignored them.  In many regards, these efforts were astonishingly successful.  In 1971, before the passage of Title IX, women were 3.7 million of 8.9 million college students.  In 1991, they were 7.7 million of 14.1 million.  Before the passage of PL94-142, 5.9% of students in public schools were identified as disabled with no data available on the numbers with specific learning disabilities.  In 1989, 11.4% of students were identified as disabled, including more than 2 million classified with specific learning disabilities.  These efforts were substantive, aimed at increasing access and equity, and their positive benefits have continued for decades and likely more to come.

Since then?  Not so much.

President Ronald Reagan, after campaigning on abolishing the newly minted cabinet seat of Secretary of Education, set education policy away from equity and opportunity and into standards and accountability with the harsh language of school failure that has dominated our discussion  ever since the 1983 publication of A Nation At Risk:

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.

Our society and its educational institutions seem to have lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling, and of the high expectations and disciplined effort needed to attain them. This report, the result of 18 months of study, seeks to generate reform of our educational system in fundamental ways and to renew the Nation’s commitment to schools and colleges of high quality throughout the length and breadth of our land.

The Reagan Administration followed in 1988 with amendments to the ESEA requiring states to “document and define” academic achievement for disadvantaged students using standardized test score measures, and ESEA funds began being tied to academic performance of disadvantaged children.  President George H.W. Bush proposed his “America 2000” legislation calling for national standards and testing of students but which failed due to conservative opposition in the Senate.  Standards based education policies were similarly advanced, however, by President Bill Clinton whose “Goals 2000” agenda focused upon student achievement, tougher academic standards, application of those standards to all students, and monitoring reform efforts via standardized testing.

The stage, then, was well set by three previous administrations for the 2001 re-authorization of the ESEA which was touted as “No Child Left Behind” by President George W. Bush.  NCLB required all schools to demonstrate annual yearly progress for all students in all subgroups, and failure to meet AYP for five years in row could result in school closures, turning schools over to private charter operators, or giving school operation to private or state managers.

Upon passage, the law enjoyed support in both parties and numerous civil rights organizations, and the logic of that is not difficult to understand.  By 2001, wide gulfs in test measured achievement remained stubbornly persistent between well off, mostly white, suburban communities and their poor, most African American and Hispanic, urban counterparts, and the language of NCLB demanded that states and municipalities address that through accountability systems with little wiggle room.  Given the undeniable need for federal action in both civil rights and expansion of educational equity in the 1960s and 1970s, the federal accountability in NCLB was a logical, if ill-fated, marriage of federal standards and accountability efforts with vigorous enforcement from Washington.

The ill-fated portion of that assessment lies with what was obvious from the beginning: by tying lofty goals to punishing consequences dependent entirely upon the results of standardized testing, NCLB unleashed entirely predictable and increasingly damaging consequences to the depth and breadth of curriculum enjoyed by children, especially children in schools labeled as struggling:

In contrast, since the advent of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), with its high stakes for schools, the traditional pattern of time allocation across subjects in elementary schools has changed markedly. Five years into NCLB, researchers found that 62 percent of a nationally representative sample of all districts in the United States—and 75 percent of districts with at least one school identified as needing improvement—increased the amount of time spent on language arts and math in elementary schools. These increases were substantial: a 47 percent increase in language arts and a 37 percent increase in math. Correspondingly, these districts decreased time allotted to other subjects and activities, including science, social studies, art, music, physical education, and recess (McMurrer, 2007).

President Barack Obama campaigned in 2008 as a Presidential aspirant who was aware of these fact, deriding the test and punish focus of the law, the lack of resources given to schools and teachers working with struggling students, and the teaching to the test that was incentivized by the law:

“Math and science are not the opposite of art and music. Those things are compatible and we want kids to get a well-rounded education. Part of the problem we’ve had is that ‘No Child Left Behind,’ the law that was passed by Bush, said we want high standards, which is good, but they said we are going to measure those high standards only by a single high stakes standardized test that we are going to apply during the middle of the school year…a whole bunch of schools said we gotta teach to this test, and art and music isn’t tested… It’s a shame.”

In reality, the administration of President Barack Obama, while loosening some of the proficiency targets of NCLB, has plainly made the most problematic aspects of the law even worse, and quite likely earning President Obama the label as the worst President for education policy in the post-World War II era.  President Obama, acting through Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, has made testing an even bigger focus of school by coercing states to adopt invalid and unproven measures of teacher performance using standardized tests.  Instead of merely working in a school that faces negative consequences based on test scores, teachers themselves face career sanctions if they do not “adequately” raise student test scores.  President Obama’s Department of Education has lavished money and favorable policies upon the charter school sector while thoroughly failing to oversee the money it has dispersed.   The administration was so interested in fulfilling the long held goal of national standards, that it helped the Gates Foundation push through rushed and unproven standards to almost all states by using the promise of federal grants and waivers from NCLB provisions.  These changes have been touted as voluntary and “state led,” but when Washington state did not pass legislation tying teacher evaluations to student growth measures, the Obama DOE brought down the hammer and revoked its waiver.

Today, 32 years after the beginning of the standards and accountability movement, 14 years into the test and punish era of school accountability, and almost 7 years into the Obama administration’s doubling down on standardized testing to measure teachers, teacher morale is at all time lows and the nation’s teacher preparation programs are struggling to find candidates.  Far from continuing the vital work of expanded opportunity and equity that spanned administrations from President Eisenhower’s use of federal troops to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas to  President Ford’s signing of PL94-142, the past five administrations have slowly tightened the grip of standardized testing on our schools until they have become a warped goal in and of themselves and have damaged the very children supposedly helped by them.  Standardized tests used to sort children have always disproportionately harmed poor children and children of color, and the frequent, high-stakes, accountability testing of NCLB has both narrowed the curriculum and slowed progress in closing the achievement gap, progress that saw its most sustained and dramatic gains in the 1970s.

So what has been missing from the education policies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama? Equity.  The educational policies that came to fruition via the original ESEA, Title IX, Section 504, and PL94-142 all were premised on the federal role of expanding resources and equity for children facing discrimination in school and society at large.  They marshaled funding and rules for schools so that they could not deny either access or equity, and they tasked the federal government with treating these as matters of civil rights.  More recent “reform” efforts are entirely about accountability without increasing the resources available to schools in order to meet those goals in a meaningful way, nor does “reform” specifically address the conditions within which schools exist, leaving them with the sole responsibility to uplift all children regardless of circumstance.  Where once federal education efforts sought to increase access to education and to increase the resources available for that education, today it demands that school increase performance in all situations without any other state actor taking responsibility for the well-being of the children in school.  David Berliner noted this in 2006:

It does take a whole village to raise a child, and we actually know a little bit about how to do that. What we seem not to know how to do in modern America is to raise the village, to promote communal values that insure that all our children will prosper. We need to face the fact that our whole society needs to be held as accountable for providing healthy children ready to learn, as our schools are for delivering quality instruction. One-way accountability, where we are always blaming the schools for the faults that we find, is neither just, nor likely to solve the problems we want to address.

We won’t have a President who deserves the title “The Education President” until we once again have a public servant in the Oval Office who sets equity of access and equity of resources as primary goals of federal education policy.  Five administrations ignoring the lessons of history and the evidence of research is enough.

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“Wait, you hated your teachers too?”

 

 

 

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Filed under Activism, Arne Duncan, charter schools, Common Core, Funding, Gates Foundation, NCLB, politics, schools, Social Justice, standards, Testing, VAMs

Dr. John King Jr.’s Experience and the Failures of Today’s Reform

When current U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that he would step down at the end of this calendar year, President Obama immediately stated that current deputy secretary and former Commissioner of the New York State Education Department, Dr. John B. King, Jr. would replace him in January.  Supporters of the Secretary designee took to Twitter with #ISupportJohnKing, touting his personal biography and what they called his lifelong experience in education.  It is undeniable that Dr. King has an immensely impressive, even inspirational, biography.  Orphaned at a young age, the future Secretary of Education credits New York City school teachers with “saving” him, and he has built upon his obviously prodigious academic talents to earn degree credentials second to none.  After a short stint teaching, he co-founded the Roxbury Prep charter school in Boston before helping to lead the Uncommon Schools network of no-excuses charter schools.  He was tapped in 2009 to become the assistant commissioner of education at NYSED, and in 2011, he was elevated to the Commissioner’s office at the age of 36.  It is without question, that he is a man of enormous drive and intelligence, and, as his supporters say, he has extensive experience in the field of education.

But what if it is totally the wrong experience?

This is not an idle question because while public education advocates often note how frequently major proponents of reform have no practical experience in education before being elevated to positions of influence and authority, all experience is not equivalent, and there is plenty of evidence that Dr. King’s experience in education leaves him ill prepared for the political exigencies of educational leadership outside of the no-excuses charter sector.  In fact, the first time in his long career in education that Dr. King was truly answerable to political and parental constituencies was when he was elevated to lead the NYSED, and it was a disaster.  While informed and dogged in pursuit of the policies which landed him his office, he demonstrated no legitimate understanding that he was leader of a system of education that depended upon support from lawmakers, parents, and the body politic in general.  Policies on the Common Core State Standards and associated testing were both disruptive and demanding with little effort to help teachers and families adjust, and promises to listen to what educators were saying about policies went unfulfilled.  Public meetings where parents voiced their opinions on new state policies did not go well, forcing him to cancel scheduled meetings and change the format to decrease his contact with constituents.  Lawmakers similarly found Dr. King unresponsive to their concerns, leading to a rare display of bipartisan sentiment in Albany as legislators called for his removal.

While I know many critics of education reform in general and of John King in particular who have a wide range of opinions on why his tenure at NYSED was as stormy as his public affect was passive, the simplest explanation that I can see is that there is nothing in Dr. King’s experience that remotely prepared him for the responsiveness needed in our fully public school system.  When he took the Commissioner’s office at NYSED, that was the first time in his entire career in various sectors of education where he was accountable to the political constituencies that have voice in public education policy and practice.  Consider his role as a charter school leader.  While the charter school sector is publicly funded, it is not remotely fully publicly accountable.  Some charter operators are exceptionally aggressive in defending themselves from public oversight, but all of them are deliberately separated from the democratic processes that oversee the funding and operation of our fully public schools.  A school principal is a an educational leader and a political figure with constituencies among elected officials, taxpayers, parents of children in the school, the children themselves, and teachers.  Public school superintendents are similarly situated although at a higher level than school principals.  Charter school operators excuse themselves from much of that, periodically subjecting themselves to review by their authorizing bodies, but otherwise functioning not only outside of local, elected accountability systems, but often excusing themselves from following education law – and gaining support from the courts to do so.

Even in responsiveness to parents, charters are not particularly obligated to be especially deferential.  The “no excuses” sector of charter schools in particular tends to place heavy demands upon parents and vigorously enforces narrow behavioral norms on children as young as five years old.  Since charter schools are schools of choice, the response to any parent concerned over disciplinary or academic practices can be limited to “maybe this isn’t the school for you” or other means to counsel out families.  The Uncommon School Network that Dr. King led before joining NYSED is an exemplar in this respect with Roxbury Prep inflicting a 40% out of school suspension rate upon its students in 2013-2014 (which, sadly, is an improvement on a the previous school year’s 60% out of school suspension rate).  This pattern is typical among the entire Uncommon Schools network which have much higher suspension rates than their neighboring schools in the three state where they operate.  And since there is no political authority to which charter schools need to answer and since parents who dislike these policies do not have to be considered, it is hardly surprising that many such school demonstrate stunning cohort attrition rates, such as North Star Academy, an Uncommon affiliate in Newark, New Jersey, where only 25% of African American boys who enroll in 5th grade are likely to make it to 12th.

This level of inflicted control without giving voice to any constituency was and apparently still is unproblematic to Dr. King who points to the measured outcomes for the students who manage to adapt to and remain within the system.  Dr. Pedro Noguera of New York University, speaking at the Courageous Schools Conference in 2011, recalled a visit to Roxbury Prep where he asked Dr. King a pointed question about the type of messages his students were receiving:

I’ve visited this school, and I noticed that children are not allowed to talk in the hall, and they get punished for the most minor infraction. And when I talked with John King afterwards, I said, “I’ve never seen a school that serves affluent children where they’re not allowed to talk in the hall.” And he said, “Well, that might be true, but this is the model that works for us, we’ve found that this is the model that our kids need.”

So I asked him, “Are you preparing these kids to be leaders or followers? Because leaders get to talk in the hall. They get to talk over lunch, they get to go to the bathroom, and people can trust them. They don’t need surveillance and police officers in the bathroom.” And he looked at me like I was talking Latin, because his mindset is that these children couldn’t do that.

It is unlikely that there is a competent principal or superintendent of schools in the country who would be surprised to face questions about methods and policies, but Dr. Noguera’s recounting demonstrates the extreme limitations of John King’s experiences.  His extreme focus and concentration upon executing an agreed upon set of priorities are traits that serve executives well in the business world (although even there an ability to pause, evaluate, and change direction are necessary), but in our fully public schools that focus has to be tempered by full awareness of and a degree of deference to the overlapping and sometimes in conflict constituencies that oversee, fund, and participate in our schools.

This is trickier than most expect.  A typical school district looks like a highly integrated, top down system of management that is mostly analogous to a corporate structure.  You have an elected school board (corporate board elected by shareholders) that hires a superintendent of schools (CEO) who is then responsible for hiring various central office administrators (corporate vice presidents and other chief officers) and school administrators (upper and management) who in turn hire and manage classroom teachers (customer contact personnel).  From the outside it looks very neat and corporate with an easy flow of directives from the top of the organization all the way down to the classroom, but the reality is far more complicated than that and of necessity.  When Karl Weick analyzed the concept of “loosely coupled systems” he used educational organizations as a clear exemplar precisely because tight top down control is not truly compatible with how schools and school systems work, which actually lends a number of clear advantages to the system.  Within the loosely coupled system, different elements of the organization are connected to each other, but each retains significant individual identity and may only influence the behavior of the others indirectly.

A result of this is how different relationships and associations that exist outside of the formal organizational chart of the school system can exert a great deal of influence upon how the school system responds to needs both inside the school and within the community.  Phil Cusick explains how this operates in his 1993 work, The School System: Its Nature and Logic:

Of the different types of associations in the system, the primary is the designation of the formal organization’s participants according to role and status…..

A second type of association in the personal but purposeful relations among those with formal designation and within the formal system….Each chapter in this book reveals participants deciding how they will behave and seeking out colleagues inside the organization with whom to act out their decisions.  The formal organization is filled with these personal and purposeful associations, too numerous to be formally recognized, which operate inside and drive the organization.

The third type of association consists of those that join people inside with people outside the schools. The system is replete with freestanding, single purpose associations that include parents, students, policymakers, critics, change agents, teachers, and administrators, combining their efforts to achieve some end.  These are the most interesting, because they reveal the breadth of the system and thereby justify the assertion that the system extends far beyond the schools….

…Not only do those outside seek to influence those inside.  Those inside and those outside are part of the same system.  They adhere to the same principles of free conscience and free association, and they join efforts and act out their visions of education in the same arena.  This constant shifting into multiple and overlapping groups and groups into coalitions is what makes school board politics, as described by Cuban (1975), so entertaining. It is also why school administrators tend to be cautious and to regard their communities warily.  Their authority is always open to challenge by one or another group: either one of the system’s recognized groups or a group organized for the purpose of opposing an administrative action. (pp. 219-221)

To be certain, such associations have not always protected students’ interests, especially students in the Jim Crow era where local “interests” maintained White Supremacism, but powerful associations of advocates for children of color, for students with disabilities, for gender equality, and for LGBT students have used these same mechanisms to influence change at every level of the system.  The weakness of Dr. King and of many of today’s reform advocates in understanding and navigating these systems should be apparent, and their general surprise at the backlashes they have faced further indicates their lack of understanding of the how the system operates.  Bill Gates himself openly admitted “The cities where our foundation has put the most money is where there is a single person responsible. In New York, Chicago and Washington, DC, the mayor has the responsibility for the school system.” That may have been expedient in pushing his favored reforms from the top into schools, but it has pretty well failed to win over lawmakers, teachers, and parent constituencies who still operate within a system that provides them with the means to influence the direction of policy and have a say in outcomes.

Gates is occasionally able to admit that he was mistaken in an area he intended to reform, but he seems oddly incapable of grappling with why those efforts founder. It seems evident that he has spent precious little time trying to actually understand how public education functions at either the organization or system level.  Similarly, reform advocates who get Gates support, such as John King, often have extremely limited experience with the majority of the education system and seem absolutely flustered when it does not respond like the tightly controlled systems they prefer.

This does not mean, of course, that people with extensive experience in the education system will reject the reforms embraced by Gates and his beneficiaries.  Dr. King’s successor in New York State is Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, and she has precisely the kind of biography that would teach one how to operate a statewide school system – and she is as dedicated to common standards and mass standardized testing as anyone in the country.  That’s a talent set that seems in short supply on the reform side of the debate, and until they stop acting as if public input is something that can be bullied out of the way or papered over with slick ad and social media campaigns, they will continue to lurch about our schools, running into growing opposition to their priorities.

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Filed under Arne Duncan, charter schools, Gates Foundation, John King, MaryEllen Elia

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

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

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

NY Commissioner Elia: The Time for Charm is Over; Let’s Start the Empty Threats

When MaryEllen Elia took over as Commissioner of Education in New York, she began by traveling the state to speak with various constituents about the direction of education in the Empire State.  This was no doubt in response to former Commissioner Dr. John King Jr.’s decided inability to listen to and to engage with stakeholders in public education, and Commissioner Elia should be granted kudos for being willing to step outside of her office in the current climate.  According to Principal Carol Burris, who attended the meeting between Commissioner Elia and New York State Allies for Public Education, MaryEllen Elia was cordial and generous with her time.  However, as was obvious from her resume in Florida, it is plain that New York’s new Commissioner is a true believe in the Holy Trinity of education reform: Common Core standards, high stakes standardized testing, and punishing schools and teachers whose students do not measure up on those examinations.  It is clear that the “listening tour” was more about changing the style than the substance of the New York State Education Department.  Ms. Burris, who recently took an early retirement to dedicate herself to defending public education, noted:

Back in the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, “the medium is the message.” McLuhan argued that the medium that delivers any message is of equal, if not greater, importance than its content.   Clearly the Board of Regents believes that by pivoting from the stiff and professorial King to the attentive and engaging Elia, parents and teachers will come to their senses and begin to like the Common Core and its tests.

So while I will give Commissioner Elia some marks for actually speaking with stakeholders and for accepting opportunities to speak with opponents of her favorite education reforms, there is no reason to think she will change anything of substance.

And now the charm offensive is over.  It is time to start in with the threats.

In a conference call with reporters, Commissioner Elia reported that the NYSED is discussing with the US Department of Education potential consequences for schools with high numbers of students who refuse the state standardized examinations.  The Politico New York story was followed by a story in The New York Times which states:

Officials at the federal Education Department have awhile to decide what to do. The state will not officially report its test participation rate to the federal government until mid-December, and the number will not be considered final until sometime after that, the State Education Department said on Thursday.

On Wednesday, the federal Education Department’s spokeswoman, Dorie Nolt, said the agency was looking to the leadership of New York’s Education Department “to take the appropriate steps on behalf of all kids in the state.”

New York led the country in students refusing to take the state standardized exams with roughly 20% of students between grades 3 and 8 and in 11th grade refusing.  These numbers are not, however, evenly distributed with large numbers of the 200,000 students not sitting for the exams in Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island. However, as reported in the Times there were also high needs districts dependent upon Title 1 funds for students in poverty who had large opt out numbers.  Commissioner Elia told the Times that federal officials had asked her what “plan” she has for “dealing” with districts that have high numbers of opt outs.

So will this be how Opt Out ends?  With the federal DOE and NYSED joining together to punish districts who do not meet federal testing numbers until everybody agrees to play along?

Outlook not so good

In order to understand whether these threats have any teeth, one has to understand why they would be made in the first place.  There are several interconnected issues.

95% of all students in all subgroups must be tested annually.  Under the 2001 re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act known as No Child Left Behind, every school in the country must test every student in mathematics and English every year between grades 3 and 8 and once in high school.  There are no exceptions allowed to this.  Based upon this requirement, there are a number of schools and districts where test refusal has dropped the percentage of tested students well below this threshold.  However –

NCLB testing requirements were meant for schools, districts, and states, not for parents and students.  When Congress passed NCLB on a bipartisan vote, their intention could not have been clearer.  They were concerned about historic evidence of communities and states quietly shunting certain populations of students outside of accountability measures and subsequently ignoring their educational needs.  This same argument has featured prominently in recent debates over renewal of NCLB and the fate of annual testing.  Regardless of what anyone thinks about the merits of annual testing of all students versus gradespan testing of samples of students, the intent of the legislation was to make certain that schools and states could not duck out of accountability for all of the students enrolled in public school.

In fact, the federal DOE made that same point to New York when it rejected some provisions of the state’s renewal application for waivers from various NCLB provisions.  The state requested that English language learners who have been in the country for less than two years be exempted from the state English examination, but the Federal DOE cited that the state has only a limited exemption capability and then referenced that the state is required to create a “single, statewide, accountability system” and that this “requirement is necessary to ensure that schools are held accountable for the academic achievement of all students…”  The state is extremely limited in its ability to exempt students from the examinations, and the schools are supposed to be accountable for their students’ learning.  To that end, New York State has contracted and administered a system of annual statewide testing, albeit a controversial one, and schools administer those tests.

However, nothing in the statutes can make a school force students to take a specific standardized exam, and there is no mechanism for punishing a student for not participating in an exam that makes up none of that student’s grade.  Schools across the state have implored parents to not opt their children out, they have put out contradictory information about what consequences might befall a school that falls below 95% of children tested, and they administered the exams to every child whose parents did not refuse them.  However, there is no statutory authority that allows a school or school district to compel taking the exam, and it is contrary to the intent of NCLB to hold them accountable for actions beyond their control.

Consider another federal education law: the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.  Under that law, schools and school districts must provide all students with a “free and appropriate public education” in the “least restrictive environment,” and schools are required to be proactive about students who are potentially disabled, conducting “child find” before the student falls behind academically.  School districts are sued routinely for failing to live up the provisions of IDEA, but if parents decline to participate in the evaluation process for special education services, the school is not held accountable for failing to evaluate and has only limited means to proceed without parents. In the case of IDEA, this is made explicit in the regulations.

NCLB does not address parental consent for or against annual standardized testing, but that is because the legislation is meant to hold schools, districts, and states accountable – not parents.  So long as all districts and schools are doing their best to ensure that as many students are tested as is possible, they are clearly fulfilling their obligations under the law.

About those waivers from the Federal DOE: While the Federal DOE did not grant all of New York’s waiver requests, the state is operating under a broad waiver from many of the more punishing provisions of NCLB.  This waiver specifically allows the state to identify schools that fail to make Annual Yearly Progress on standardized exams as Priority and Focus Schools instead of as schools for restructuring. 20% of Title I funds under the waiver no longer need to be spent on supplemental services and/or transportation for school choice options, and are replaced with funding for specific state programs and increased parental involvement.

Test refusal in large numbers in districts receiving Title I funds will complicate the state’s ability to identify reward schools, priority schools, and focus schools, but that is a matter between Albany and Washington, D.C. rather than between either capitol and individual schools.  Given that school districts have gone as far as to use the arguably abusive “sit and stare” policy to try to coerce test participation, there is no argument that either Albany nor Washington can make that holds entire schools responsible for the actions of a portion, plurality, or majority of their parents, so what argument is there to withdraw Title I money from specific schools when the entire state operates under waivers?

In a decade and a half has ANY school ever lost Title I funds for missing testing numbers? In a word, no.  Fairtest is a nonprofit that monitors testing across the country and advocates for changes to our standardized testing environment, and they are unaware of a single school, anywhere, that has ever lost Title I funds for missing the 95% testing requirement.  The scale of the Opt Out movement in New York may be a new phenomenon, but that does not suddenly grant Washington and Albany the power to do something they’ve never done before.

So what if Commissioner Elia and the US DOE find some way to claim statutory authority?  What then?  What then would be a political firestorm of epic proportions.  Apart from obvious lawsuits, imagine the situation. NYSED or the federal government threaten sanctions for failing to test 95% of students, but their only real option is to withhold Title I funds which are allocated to schools with significant percentages of students in poverty.  So that would leave a community like, say, Rockville Center on Long Island, which had a 62% opt out rate this Spring, essentially untouched. Why?  Rockville Center’s population’s is much wealthier than the state average, and its single middle school only has 10% of students qualifying for free and reduced price lunch.

Compare that to the Earth School in Manhattan.  According to this statement from the Movement of Rank and File Educators, 100 students at the ethnically diverse elementary school refused this year’s tests.  Earth School is 44% African American and Hispanic and 43% of its students qualify for free or reduced price lunch.  Or how about Dolgeville Middle School upstate where 64% of its students qualify for free or reduced price lunch and whose district had an 89% opt out rate?

Does anyone actually think that Albany or Washington could withstand the fury they would unleash by withholding federal money meant to aid schools with high percentages of student in poverty – inflicting great harm on students who are among the urban and rural poor – while leaving affluent suburban schools mostly unscathed?  The situation would be patently discriminatory on its face, and it could never stand either in the court of public opinion or in state and federal court.

NY Commissioner Elia and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan may be threatening to pull out a gun against Opt Out, but the first rule is never pull a gun you are not prepared to fire.  In this case, it would help to make sure the gun is loaded and is not, in fact, a banana.

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Filed under Arne Duncan, MaryEllen Elia, NCLB, Opt Out, Testing