Category Archives: John King

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

Can Teaching Survive as a Profession?

Education reform has finally gotten around to taking direct aim at teacher preparation.  On October 4th, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan published an “open letter” at Brookings to America’s university presidents and deans of education.  In it, he used “evidence” from a report from self appointed “teacher quality” watchdog, NCTQ, which claimed that America’s future teachers get a disproportionate degrees with honors to claim that our teacher preparation programs are too easy.  The NCTQ “study,” which follows their standard method of examining available materials gleaned from websites without ever visiting a campus, claimed that few programs offer enough rigor and grade subjectively.  On October 12th, Mr. Duncan’s successor, Secretary of Education John King, released long expected federal regulations for teacher preparation, the heart of which focus on reporting of program “success” in preparing successful teachers.  The transparency rules will require states to report program by program on:

  • Placement and retention rates of graduates in their first three years of teaching, including placement and retention in high-need schools;
  • Feedback from graduates and their employers on the effectiveness of program preparation;
  • Student learning outcomes measured by novice teachers’ student growth, teacher evaluation results, and/or another state-determined measure that is relevant to students’ outcomes, including academic performance, and meaningfully differentiates amongst teachers; and
  • Other program characteristics, including assurances that the program has specialized accreditation or graduates candidates with content and pedagogical knowledge, and quality clinical preparation, who have met rigorous exit requirements.

The bolded section obviously refers to student growth measures based upon standardized examinations, essentially requiring states to utilize value added measures or student growth percentiles and then pegging that to the “value added” of various teacher preparation programs.  “Meaningful” differentiation “amongst teachers” is obviously yet another “highly effective” to “ineffective” stack ranking system beloved by the Federal DOE.

Finally, on October 14th, the editorial board of The New York Times, weighed in with an editorial that hit on all of the familiar themes of recent education reform efforts:  Other nations “eclipse” our educational outcomes, our schools of education have no real standards, and they don’t prepare the “right” teachers to fit our need.  The board accepted without question the conclusions of NCTQ about teacher preparation and embraced the reporting of “multiple measures” of teacher preparation, especially the tying of value added on standardized test scores back to the supposed quality of teacher preparation.  While the regulations leave the choice of “growth measures” up to the states, it is obvious that such language inherently means value added based on standardized test scores as those systems are the only ones actually in place.  This is not unlike how Arne Duncan did not “force” state competing for Race to to the Top grants to adopt the Core Curriculum Content Standards, but he actually did by requiring them to adopt “College and Career Readiness Standards” which, to the surprise of nobody, only existed in any form in CCSS.

Let me offer a concession at this point:  Teacher preparation in America could certainly do a better job.  It is common among teachers to express that their teacher preparation was inadequate and disconnected from their actual work teaching, and this complaint is hardly new.  Tying what is learned in university classrooms to elementary and secondary classrooms is both difficult and often tenuous.  Even programs that constantly include extensive work in classrooms throughout preparation struggle with the reality that few experiences can adequately simulate the full responsibilities of teaching day in and day out, and adapting to that reality while keeping a clear focus on what students are learning is one of the most difficult things anyone ever teaches.

And the field of teacher preparation is certainly aware of this.  I have written before that efforts to improve the quality of teacher education in the country are hardly new, and numerous reports and agencies have both proposed and implemented change over the past 30 years.  Since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, we have had influential reports from the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy and The Holmes Group.  Thinkers like John Goodlad have seriously challenged how we see the relationship between university based teacher preparation and practitioners in the field, and the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future issued its own report highlighting innovations to more strongly connect theory and practice as well as universities and P-12 classrooms.  These ideas have been worked into influential standards and accreditation bodies such as the National Council on the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) and its successor, The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) – which guide the preparation of teachers in more than 700 institutions across the country.

But can teacher preparation – and by extension, the teaching profession – survive this next round of attention from federal regulators and reform advocates?

There can be no doubt that teaching and teachers are suffering today.  A recent article in The Atlantic reviewed the various forms of stress that have had demonstrable impact upon teachers, and it tied that stress to growing concern over high attrition rates caused by on the job dissatisfaction.  Further, the pipeline of willing teachers has contracted dramatically in recent years, as much as 35% with enrollments in teacher preparation programs falling from 691,000 to 451,000 in only 5 years.  Reasons for this tightening supply at a time of high demand vary, but it cannot be disputed that it is increasingly difficult to replace qualified teachers with qualified new teachers.

The transparency portion of the federal regulations seems perfectly poised to make this worse.  Regulators and reformers insist that they want the best and the brightest to enter teaching through programs with high entry standards and a track record of graduating successful teachers.  But they wish to measure this by tracking the value added on standardized tests of program graduates, a process fraught with conceptual difficulties such as the incredible instability of such ratings, where teachers in the very top of value-added in one year can find themselves moving from one level to the next over subsequent years.  This is yet another incentive to reduce the breadth of the curriculum to tested subjects, to produce teachers who can enact scripted lessons aimed at high test performance, and to discourage graduates from serving any urban population other than those in no-excuses charter schools, schools that do not emphasize teaching as a life long commitment.

Of course, nobody openly cops to wanting to wreck teaching as a profession (with the possible exception of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who cannot seem to pick apart his ire at New Jersey’s teacher union from New Jersey’s teachers).  However, actions, regardless of intentions, have reshaped teachers’ work for the worse, and if the profession is to survive as a profession serious changes are necessary.  Some of the most obvious threats:

  1. Attrition: Experienced teachers are better at their work than rank novices.  While advocates like Teacher for America’s Wendy Kopp claim that the “best” schools can develop new teachers into very effective teachers in only a year or two, that is based heavily on a charter model of scripted lessons aimed at test performance.  Although teachers develop rapidly in their very first years in the classroom, that improvement continues far past that point not only in test-based measures, but also in areas like lower student absenteeism and improved classroom discipline.  Findings that we are losing teachers at a rate of 8% a year – and only a third of that due to retirement – should worry anyone concerned about the viability of the profession.  Teachers with little preparation leave at rates of two to three times higher than those with strong preparation, and teachers in our high poverty schools tend to leave more frequently. Loss of teachers with experience also harms novice teachers, who try to learn their work within schools that lack a depth of knowledge represented by experienced colleagues.
  2. Obsession with test based measures: It is disheartening to see that the Federal DOE remains gripped with its obsession on using standardized tests to root out ineffective teachers and, now, teacher preparation.  The reality is that these measures are poorly suited for the job.  Student Growth Percentiles are so tightly correlated to the poverty characteristics of schools that it is difficult to determine whether or not they measure teacher input at all.  Value-Added Models, although more statistically sophisticated, produce enormous error rates and simply cannot account for all of the factors that contribute to standardized test scores, leading to a recent New York State court case which called the evaluation system using VAMs “arbitrary and capricious.” Although the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act directly forbids the federal government from requiring growth measures in state evaluation rules, it is imminently clear that Secretary King intends to jump on whatever lever he can find to maintain them.  So long as this continues, teachers face continued pressure to narrow their curricula and schools face continued pressure to box teachers deeply in test preparation mode which is simply not the same thing as teaching and learning mode.
  3. Vanishing teacher autonomy: If teachers were treated as professionals, it would be self evident that they would have latitude in determining the needs of their students, designing instruction to meet those needs, implementing and adjusting that instruction, and assessing their success by a variety of means.  Such professional autonomy is at threat in the current policy environment where teachers strongly believe that testing policies have diminished their ability to make decisions.  Sadly, as Richard Ingersoll of University of Pennsylvania notes, micromanaging teaching and curriculum decisions may assist weaker teachers, but for good teachers it contributes to job dissatisfaction which contributes to turn over.  Scripted lessons and little decision making probably satisfies the teacher as young and crusading short term job model many reformers favor, but it plays havoc on our ability to retain a dedicated body of professional teachers.
  4. Attacks on teachers’ representatives: It drives education reformers nuts that teachers are represented by organizations modeled on trade unions.  The old line of attack on unions was that if teachers were professionals, they should have gradated careers like other highly educated professional workers, making unions less “necessary.”  Today, the attacks are more directly aimed at union representation itself and workplace protections, with lawsuits attacking the practice of tenure under the guise of violating students’ rights to excellent teachers.  Get rid of the due process procedures given to tenured teachers, the thinking goes, and bad teachers will be easily removed leading to better outcomes.  The flaws in this are manifest.  First, the most common arguments against tenure do not actually match what current research knows.  Second, if the existence of tenure itself were a problem for student achievement, we would expect wealthy suburban districts where teachers remain on the job longer than average to be suffering with the weight of tenured faculty failing to work hard.  Obviously, that is not the case because teacher attrition is much more detrimental to student achievement than tenure.  Finally, teachers are in an odd profession where their duties and ethical obligations require them to actually speak up against administrators who are harming students.  Peter Greene argues cogently that teachers need special protections in order to do their jobs properly: “It (lack of tenure protections) forces teachers to work under a chilling cloud where their best professional judgment, their desire to advocate for and help students, their ability to speak out and stand up are all smothered by people with the power to say, “Do as I tell you, or else.”  This is absolutely correct, and it is something the moguls and philanthropists funding much of the assault on teacher unions, who are used to work force operating in tight chains of command, simply do not grasp.
  5. Workplace struggles: Loss of autonomy and attacks on workplace protections contribute to what many in the profession see as a deteriorating situation in the workplace.  The American Federation of Teachers collaborated with the grassroots activist group Badass Teachers Association (BATs) for a first of its kind workplace survey with 30,000 teachers participating.  Although the results are not representative of a scientific sample of teachers, what was reported should give education policy makers serious pause for concern, especially from the perspective of treating teachers as professionals.  45% of respondents disagreed with the idea that they can count upon support from their supervisor, and 52% disagreed that teaching allows they to make decisions on their own.  43% of the teachers said that they rarely or never have opportunities to make decisions that impact their work, and 45% said that their job interferes with family life. Structured support for new teachers is not the norm with 62% noting that their schools have no mentoring program for novices.  Worse, nearly a third of respondents reported experiencing bullying or intimidation in the workplace, and nearly half said they had been treated for anxiety or depression at some point in their careers.  We know very well that teachers leave their jobs, especially in high poverty schools, when working conditions fail to foster collegiality among teachers and effective, supportive leadership among administrators.  Poor working conditions coupled with attacks on teachers’ existing protections can only contribute to our attrition problem
  6. A strangled supply line: While Arne Duncan is lamenting that teacher preparation programs are too easy, policy makers in various states are continuing to increase requirements for entry into such programs.  In New Jersey, for example, policy makers mandated that nobody can enter a teacher preparation program unless he or she is among the top third of standardized test takers entering college.  Once enrolled, he or she must maintain a GPA of 3.0 and complete both an education major and a major in a liberal arts subject.  In order to successfully complete teacher preparation and gain a professional license, he or she must pass both the ETS PRAXIS II exam and submit a detailed study of his or her impact as a teacher in the form of Pearson’s EdTPA performance assessment.  Whether or not these requirements are appropriate is a wider conversation, but one thing is certain: the number of students available to even contemplate teaching as a career is smaller today than it was previously.  Higher selectivity might make sense in an environment with high retention of experienced teachers and where teaching is seen as a desirable profession.  As of right now, teacher preparation programs in New Jersey at least have to try to convince honors students to consider teaching in an environment where they see their own teachers suffering and scapegoated.  This is not a situation conducive to a sustainable number of teachers entering the profession.
  7. De-professionalization: The contradictions from Washington and from education reformers are legion.  We are told that teacher preparation must become more rigorous, but then we are told that we measure teacher effectiveness using test based measures which fail to actually capture what teachers do.  We are told that teachers must be thoroughly prepared to teach students to thrive in a complex modern economy and information environment, but more and more teachers work in environments where the testing has spawned narrowly scripted curricula that have to be implemented without professional judgement.  We see a broad coalition of partners from education reform and more traditional teaching advocates joining to “nenew” the profession with better and more in depth preparation, but within that coalition, Teach for America sees “no reason” to revisit their 5 week “training” model for corps members.  It is not hard to see that the current reform environment favors de-professionalization over  truly professional teachers.  The new DOE regulations insist upon student growth being tied back to the quality of teacher preparation, an inherent call for heavy reliance of standardized test data.  This opens the door for “highly effective” ratings to be lavished upon Relay “Graduate School of Education” which is largely in the business of training teachers in the methods of no excuses urban charter schools – high levels of behavioral control, heavily scripted curricula delivered as written, a heavy emphasis on preparing for the annual accountability tests, and relatively short “careers” in teaching.  Such methods may result in high value added for Relay’s graduates, but it is not likely to result in lifelong career teachers who retain professional autonomy and a robust vision of how teachers shape curriculum.

These challenges to teaching are robust, and, by now, they possess a frightening degree of inertia.  Together, they genuinely pose a threat to teaching as a profession that individuals pursue and commit to for a lifetime.  Our future teachers are watching what goes on in school today and are either developing a commitment to become teachers – or a desire to stay far away, dispositions towards the profession that will not be easy to turn.  Further, the increasing reliance on short time teachers granted credentials that emphasize high scores on standardized tests threatens to reinvent teaching into something that enthusiastic young people do for a short time before moving on to their “adult” lives.

A profession of many millions working with many tens of millions, however, does not turn quite so easily, as reformers have discovered over the past decade.  In order to redirect our efforts so that teaching can genuinely thrive, we need better ideas competing for time and attention.  Some ideas that demand our attention:

  1. Slay the Testing Beast: This does not mean doing away with any concept of standardized testing at all (although I know many advocates who wish for that).  It does mean, however, admitting once and for all what they cannot do.  Education reform has been adamant for 15 years that test data will first identify failing schools and provide them with incentives to improve and then that test data will objectively identify ineffective teachers and let us remove them so they harm no more children.  We know now that it has done no such thing, and that test-based accountability has created more problems than it has solved.  NCLB mandated testing has not told us about failing schools that we did not already know were struggling, and Race to the Top mandated growth measures have consistently failed to create evaluation systems that fairly identify teachers who should not be in the profession.  What they have done is wreak havoc on the curriculum, especially in communities of color, and restrict teachers’ professional autonomy.  Further, the tests have been used as rationales to privatize control of public education into hands that are inherently unaccountable to the communities they operate in and which increase costs and burdens for the remaining public schools. Instead of being a single, limited, tool of accountability, the tests have become the objects in and of themselves and rationales for “creative disruption” of a core democratic institution.
  2. If we are going to measure, be clear what we are measuring and why. Of course, teachers and schools should be accountable, but large standardized tests can only measure very narrow skill bands.  That’s a snapshot of a year’s worth of teaching, and often a poorly designed one that teachers do not get to see anyway.  At its best, such data can give higher level administrators an bird’s eye view of work across a school or a district, but it will not tell them what they find if they look closer.  There are schools with low test scores that are places of warmth and support but which need specific resources they are not getting.  There are schools with high test scores that are Dickensian nightmares of behavioral control and test preparation with little else.  There are also many different ways to define school success and until we acknowledge how limited test based measures are we are not going to give those concepts the attention they deserve.  Do schools with high poverty student populations work to develop their teachers?  Do they collaborate on problem solving for their students?  Are they well connected within the surrounding community?  Do they partner with local businesses, agencies, and organizations?  Do they actively reach out to parents and guardians?  Are they seeking grants and other opportunities for their academic programming?  Are the students happy and safe in the building?  There are many other ways to assess the work of schools and teachers if we can let go of the idea that only some measures are valid.
  3. Focus on retention and growth of teachers: Federal regulators and education reformers have been obsessed with creating a system that identifies the lowest ranked teachers via growth measures and then removes them from teaching.  Their tools are inadequate to the task and thoroughly miss that retention of experienced teachers is a far greater issue in the profession.  Experienced teachers are more effective than inexperienced teachers, and they provide a core of institutional and practice knowledge that both assists novices and cannot be easily replaced.  While meaningful supervision and assessment is important for novice teachers, it is at least as important to maintain our veterans.  If policy makers aimed their efforts at retention veteran teachers and establishing environments where teachers collaborate and support each other across experience levels, we would have a more stable core of teachers and teacher development in the early years would improve.
  4. Instead of attacking unions, develop administrators: It is almost religious dogma among education reformers that unions make it impossible to remove ineffective teachers.  This is false.  Unions do make it necessary for administrators to do their jobs well before removing a teacher with tenure, and the process may involve steps.  The benefit of this, however, is that experienced teachers are able to do their jobs without fear that they may face retaliation if they end up crossing an administrator.  What schools need are administrators who are adept instructional leaders and willing to engage in the process of removing a teacher when necessary.  What they absolutely do not need are teachers who have no confidence that they can speak up on the job in defense of their students.
  5. Healthy, collaborative schools work better for all: Even before the BATs/AFT workplace survey, we knew that the environment in a school is crucial.  Schools where teachers collaborate to help their children and which are led by administrators interested in substantive work centered on real learning are positive environments for student learning and for teacher growth.  Schools typified by isolated teachers subjected to micromanagement from rigid administrators are not.  Schools under pressure to meet unmanageable expectations generally do not foster the former.  While accountability proponents may be right to expect schools to work towards improvement, it is crucial that we seek to enable the conditions that make that improvement possible.
  6. Remember the teacher pipeline: It is all well and good that many advocates want to make it harder to become a teacher, but when narrowing that pipeline they need to remember two important considerations:  First, we need about 3 million teachers in the country at any given time, so while there is merit to improving teacher’s pay as requirements go up, there is a ceiling to that due to basic labor economics.  Second, if we are not going to be able to raise teacher pay to attract college students who have other career options, we have to foster those aspects of the profession that attract people beyond fame and money.  Historically, people have been attracted to the “psychic rewards” of teaching, those aspects of the work that develop a sense of efficacy and evidence of having done good in the world.  Such rewards are evident to potential teachers in schools where their own teachers are treated well, have professional autonomy, collaborate with each other, and are valued beyond what test scores they can generate.  Unless we pay careful attention to the vision of teaching as a profession that we project, we will have a terrible time convincing a new generation to pursue it.
  7. Pay up: It hurts the ears of politicians who do not want to consider tax increases, but education is not cheap, and it remains underfunded in many ways.  For example, when Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in the 1970s, it promised states that the federal government would pick up 40% of the cost of serving the children entitled to services under the act.  It has never done better than 20% of the costs, and the latest effort to fully fund education for the disabled sits in committee in the waning days of the 114th Congress.  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has openly mocked increased education funding, but his state remains $3.9 billion behind promised state funding annuallyShockingly poor school conditions can be found in urban districts like Detroit, but more than half of our nation’s aging schools need repairs and capital improvements.
  8. Refocus on equity: For 33 years, education policy has focused on increasing standards and accountability with an intense focus on test based accountability since 2001.  But during this time period, we have largely forgotten one of the most historically powerful enablers of teachers’ teaching and students’ learning: equity. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, federal policy aimed opening school to more students and enabling states and municipalities to serve these student populations, but since 1980, we have demanded more results from teachers and schools while failing to accept any responsibility for the well being of the children we send to those schools.  David Berliner noted this powerfully a decade ago:  “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.”  If we want schools and teachers to be fully capable partners in raising children up, we need to accept that we cannot kick the ladders out from under those same children and blame teachers when they do not catch them all.

It is past time to change our focus.

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Filed under Data, ESSA, Funding, John King, Media, Pearson, politics, Shared Posts, Social Justice, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching, Testing, Unions, VAMs

This Was The Summer of Charter School Discontent

As summer gives way to Fall, it is worth taking note how shifts, both subtle and substantial, are changing the ground on which charter school advocates fight for more of our public education system.  This is not what they are used to.  Backed by billionaire financing, using that money to pull the Democratic Party towards education policies more typical of the Republican Party, calling in favors from elected officials who owe their donors, getting unfettered and poorly monitored largess from the federal government, permitted to engage in practices that would land any public school district in a federal civil rights lawsuit, and existing in a regulatory environment that is charitably described as “permissive,” charter schools and their advocates are used to owning the conversation…and pretty much getting their way.

Slowly — but possibly steadily — that is changing.

An early blow actually came last November when current Democratic Party nominee for President Hillary Clinton was campaigning and made an entirely factual observation about the charter school sector as a whole:

“Most charter schools — I don’t want to say every one — but most charter schools, they don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them. And so the public schools are often in a no-win situation, because they do, thankfully, take everybody, and then they don’t get the resources or the help and support that they need to be able to take care of every child’s education.”

There is literally nothing inaccurate about that observation.  Self selection helps charter schools in general with their student population, and many flatly rig their supposedly open lottery processes.  The attrition rates at many charter schools, especially ones that apply incredibly narrow disciplinary regimes to their students, are well established, and the enrollment and financial impacts of these practices on host districts are also well known.  Every observation she made in that comment was fundamentally true.

Which did not stop major charter school advocates from lamenting her statement.  The pro-charter and hedge fund backed group “Democrats” for Education Reform (DFER) immediately released a response saying, it was “highly disappointing and seemed to reinforce fears about how her endorsements from both major teachers unions would affect her K-12 platform.”  This is the same DFER that enthusiastically responded to Secretary Clinton’s campaign announcement, but which apparently has problems with her suggesting that charter schools be held to the same standards as fully public schools and doesn’t want anyone noting how quickly many charter operators purge themselves of students with disabilities, with behavioral needs, or with second language learning needs.

Since then, Secretary Clinton seems to have tried a bit of a pivot, saving her most negative comments for so-called “for profit” charter schools, which, to be fair, are a general disaster zone of a sector.  However, as Peter Greene rightly noted in July, this is a distinction in desperate search of a difference.  An actual charter school can be a non-profit entity run by a for profit charter management organization (CMO).  A non-profit CMO can contract exclusively with for profit vendors that the CMO operators have a financial interest in.  Real estate plays abound in the charter school sector, and various investment arrangements allow guaranteed returns for large financial firms.  Operating as a not for profit also doesn’t stop charter school administrators from paying themselves extravagantly from the public money they receive.

In fact, these very issues were at the heart of a Last Week Tonight segment by John Oliver.  The comedian and social critic was blistering.  While explicitly avoiding the debate over the existence of charters and carefully noting that he was looking at the problems associated with a poorly regulated sector taking public funds, Mr. Oliver looked at financial scandals and fraud in charter schools across the country:

This level of scrutiny has been sorely lacking over the quarter century of charter school growth and promotion, but Mr. Oliver was specific and devastating, looking at schools that suddenly shut down without warning, crooked financial arrangements, questionable charter school applications, and oversight laws allowing administrators to select their own non-profit organizations as the legal overseer of their owns charters.  Consider the quote in this screen shot warning parents in Philadelphia what to do before selecting a charter school:

philly

Kind of says it all, doesn’t it?

But the charter sector is still only in the denial stage of grieving, so, despite Mr. Oliver’s careful framing of his examination of fraud and mismanagement, the pro-charter Center for Center for Education Reform announced a $100,000 contest called “Hey, John Oliver, Back Off My Charter School!” I wish every public school district in the country had a spare hundred grand laying around for something like this.

The pro-charter camp also suffered set backs at the Democratic National Convention this summer when the education portion of the platform was amended with language explicitly supporting democratically governed public schools and making some actual demands of charter schools:

“We believe that high quality public charter schools should provide options for parents, but should not replace or destabilize traditional public schools. Charter schools must reflect their communities, and thus must accept and retain proportionate numbers of students of color, students with disabilities and English Language Learners in relation to their neighborhood public schools.”

It is hard to imagine anyone having a problem with this, so, of course, Shavar Jeffries of “Democrats” for Education Reform laced into the changes saying that the platform had been hijacked by the national teachers’ unions, and DFER tried, unsuccessfully, to block the language.  The lack of total obsequiousness from elected Democrats must have been very shocking to them.

However, the most difficult blow to absorb must have been from the NAACP. The venerable civil rights organization, sometimes an ally in education reform during the No Child Left Behind era, called for a general moratorium on privately managed charter schools – in effect, all of them.  The resolution cited the fact that charter boards accept public money but lack democratic accountability, that charter schools are contributing to increased segregation, that punitive disciplinary policies are disproportionately used in charter schools as well as other practices that violate students’ rights, that there is a pattern of fraud of mismanagement in the sector in general, and it then called for opposition to privatization of education, opposed diversion of funding from public schools, called for full funding for quality public education, called for legislation granting parents access to charter school boards and to strengthen oversight, called for charter schools to follow USDOJ and USDOE guidelines on student discipline and to help parents file complaints when those guidelines are violated, opposed efforts to weaken oversight, and called for a moratorium on charter school growth.  Professor Julian Vasquez Heilig defended the resolution, saying that education reformers have only offered top-down and privatized solutions and that choices can be community based.

Dr. Yohuru Williams of Fairfield University explained the importance of the resolution clearly:

Civil Rights workers were concerned first and foremost with the eradication of legal policies or structures like separate but equal that resulted in inequality. This mirrors the cornerstone of the NAACP’s current call for a moratorium on charter schools. They do not claim that all charters are bad, as some commentators have suggested, but declare that the unchecked proliferation of such schools represents a real danger to communities of color. They expressed concern about the dearth of evidence proving their effectiveness and deplore the resulting segregation they often produce. Most importantly, they question the equity of diverting public funds to support private enterprises. As the NAACP rightly observed, “[Charter schools] do not represent the public yet make decisions about how public funds are spent [and have] contributed to the increased segregation rather than diverse integration of our public school system.”

This is really the crux of the problem. The Civil Rights Movement was about inclusivity, while those who appropriate its language to buttress corporate education reform do so largely in support of programs that promote exclusivity at the public’s expense.

I find it difficult to emphasize this enough. For more than a decade and half, education reformers – backed by powerful philanthropies and funded by PACs funneling dark money from billionaires – have attempted to co-opt the language of civil rights.  They have used the plight of children of color who attend schools that are deliberately segregated and criminally underfunded to justify, as Dr. Denisha Jones explains, privatizing schools, setting up “choice” systems where schools choose children, and offering barely trained, infinitely replaceable teachers for children of color.  The NAACP resolution calls for a full pause in that agenda and recognizes it as antithetical to civil rights.

Of course, reformers could not stay silent on the matter.  Secretary of Education and former charter school head Dr. John King chartersplained that there should not be any “artificial barriers” to charter schools calling them “drivers of opportunity.”  Various African American led school choice groups pushed back on the resolution as well.  Self-proclaimed “most trusted educator in America” Dr. Steve Perry took a blunter approach on social media, calling the NAACP platform “anti-Black”:

And former Assistant Secretary of Education Peter Cunningham continued his efforts to use millions of dollars in seed money to build a “better conversation” by blaming the whole drubbing that charter schools have suffered this past summer on AFT President Randi Weingarten:

Mr. Cunningham is also referencing a suit in Washington state against the charter school sector that was working its way through the courts at the time – charters in Washington lost, with the state Supreme Court ruling that the state’s charter school law violated the state Constitution.

Of course, charter schools are in no danger of folding up shop and going away (although the faster that virtual charter schools which even charter advocates cannot defend just die already the better).  There are billions of dollars in public funds still up for grabs, and numerous ways to monetize public education.  Despite their complaints at hearing actual criticism, it is unlikely that charter schools would face an implacable foe in a Clinton administration as much as they’d face an ally telling them to behave better.  Charter school advocates are pouring money into a fight to convince Massachusetts voters that their already best in the nation school system needs unlimited charter schools — painting itself as a progressive cause when it is funded mostly by the same conservative groups – DFER, New Schools Venture Fund, billionaire donors – behind school privatization everywhere else.  They might win that one, but, for the moment, they are in unexpected territory and feeling defensive.

That’s long past due.

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Filed under charter schools, Corruption, DFER, Funding, Hillary Clinton, John King, politics, Social Justice

New York Evaluations Lose in Court

Sheri Lederman is an experienced teacher in the Long Island district of Great Neck.  This means that she, like every other teacher in the Empire State, has been subjected to an ongoing experiment of teacher evaluation roulette with increasing focus on the “value added” of individual teachers calculated using student standardized test scores plugged into complex statistical formulas.  The method, called “Value Added Modeling,” is meant to account for the various factors that might impact a student’s score on a standardized test, isolate the teacher’s input on the student’s growth during one year of instruction, and determine whether or not the student learned as much as similarly situated students.  The difference between what the VAM predicts and how the student does – for either better or worse – is used to determine whether or not an individual teacher is effective.  VAMs promise to remove some of the subjectivity of teacher evaluation by relying solely upon tests that large numbers of students take and by calculating how well a teacher’s students did all things considered – literally.  VAM formulas claim to account for differences in students’ socioeconomic backgrounds and home life and only hold teachers accountable for students’ predicted performance.

Sounds great.  Trouble is that they don’t work.

The research base on VAMs continues to grow, but the evidence against them was strong enough that the American Statistical Association strongly cautioned against their use in individual and high stakes teacher evaluation in 2014.  So, of course, New York took its already VAM heavy evaluation system and doubled down hard on the standardized testing component because Governor Andrew Cuomo decided that the evaluations were finding too many teachers competent.  The previous system was, interestingly enough, the one that Ms. Lederman ran afoul of.  According to this New York Times article, Ms. Lederman’s  students performed very slightly lower on the English exam in the 2013-2014 school year than in the previous year, which was apparently enough to cause her test based effectiveness rating to plummet from 14 out of 20 points to 1 out of 20 points.  While her overall evaluation was still positive, the VAM based portion of her evaluation still labeled Ms. Lederman as ineffective.

So she sued.  In the court filing against then New York State Commissioner (and now U.S. Secretary of Education) John King, her argument was that the growth model used in New York “actually punishes excellence in education through a statistical black box which no rational educator or fact finder could see as fair, accurate or reliable.”  In fact, we’ve seen this before when the growth model used by New York City determined that the absolute worst 8th grade math teacher in the entire city was a teacher at a citywide gifted and talented program whose students performed exceptionally on the statewide Regents Integrated Algebra Exam, a test mostly taken by tenth graders, but who did not perform as well as “predicted” on the state 8th grade mathematics test.  It is important to remember that VAMs promise to explain the differences among student test scores by isolating the teacher’s effect on learning, but in order to do this, they have to mathematically peel away everything else.  However, according to the American Statistical Association statement, most research suggests that teacher input counts for only 1-14% of the variation among student scores, so the VAMs have to literally carve away over 85% of the influences on how students do on standardized tests to work.  No wonder, then, that the Lederman V. King filing called the models a “statistical black box” given that this is an example from New York City’s effort earlier in the decade:

NYC VAM

Not only are these models difficult to impossible for teachers and most administrators to understand, they simply do not perform as advertised.  Schochet and Chiang, in a 2010 report for Mathematica, found that in trying to classify teachers via growth models, error rates as high as 26% were possible when using three years of data, meaning one in four teachers could easily be misclassified in any given evaluation even if the evaluation used multiple years of data.   Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers wanted to test the often floated talking point that some teachers are “irreplaceable” because they demonstrate a very high value added using student test scores.  What he found, using New York City data, was an unstable mess where teachers were much more likely to ping around from the top 20% to below that and back up again over a five year stretch.  So as a tool for providing evaluators with clear and helpful information on teachers’ effectiveness, it would perhaps be better to represent that VAM formula like this:

NYC VAMreal

NYC VAMfake

The judge in Ms. Lederman’s case ruled this week, and, as the linked news articles stated, he vacated her evaluation, saying that it had been “arbitrary and capricious.”  The judge’s ruling is, by necessity, limited in scope because the evaluation system that gave Ms. Lederman her low value added rating no longer exists, having been replaced by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2015 push to tie HALF of teacher evaluations to test scores and then by the New York State Education Department’s somewhat frenzied efforts to implement that which has resulted in a temporary bar on using the state tests for those evaluations.  The ruling is still significant because the judge recognized the deep, and likely unsolvable, problems with the VAM system used in the Lederman case.  According to Dr. Audrey Armein-Beardsley, the judge acknowledged:

(1) the convincing and detailed evidence of VAM bias against teachers at both ends of the spectrum (e.g. those with high-performing students or those with low-performing students); (2) the disproportionate effect of petitioner’s small class size and relatively large percentage of high-performing students; (3) the functional inability of high-performing students to demonstrate growth akin to lower-performing students; (4) the wholly unexplained swing in petitioner’s growth score from 14 [i.e., her growth score the year prior] to 1, despite the presence of statistically similar scoring students in her respective classes; and, most tellingly, (5) the strict imposition of rating constraints in the form of a “bell curve” that places teachers in four categories via pre-determined percentages regardless of whether the performance of students dramatically rose or dramatically fell from the previous year.”

Equally important as the court’s recognition of arguments against value-added models in teacher evaluation, is the ground that was broken with the ruling.  Ms. Lederman’s attorney (and husband), Bruce Lederman, sent out a message reported by New York City education activist Leonie Haimson which said, in part, ” …To my knowledge, this is the first time a judge has set aside an individual teacher’s VAM rating based upon a presentation like we made.”  The significance of this cannot be overstated.  For years now, teachers have been on the defensive and largely powerless, subjected to poorly thought out policies which, nevertheless, had force of policy and law on their side.  Lederman v. King begins the process of flipping that script, giving New York teachers an effective argument to make on their behalf and challenging policy makers to find some means of defending their desire to use evaluation tools that are “capricious and arbitrary.” While this case will not overturn whatever system NYSED thinks up next, it should force Albany to think really long and hard about how many times they want to defend themselves in court from wave after wave of teachers challenging their test-based ratings.

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Filed under Data, John King, teaching, Testing, VAMs

New York Testing Gets a Bit Weird

I cannot imagine that it is easy being New York Stated Education Department Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.  Brought to Albany in May of last year, she came to a post where her predecessor, Dr. John King Jr., had strained relationships with many parents and communities to the breaking point.  Commissioner Elia arrived in the wake of record breaking test refusal in her new state, and her obvious job was to mend fences between NYSED and school districts and parents while not backing off of the Common Core Standards, the accompanying testing, and plans to use test data in the evaluation of districts, schools, and teachers.  In most respects, she was an ideal pick for the job.  She is clearly a believer in today’s reform environment, having taken on a $100 million grant for Florida’s sprawling Hillsborough district from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation  to implement the foundation’s vision of teacher effectiveness (a vision that turned out to be an expensive bust that lost funding and was ultimately abandoned by the district).  More importantly, Commissioner Elia is a lifelong educator with thorough knowledge of how complicated the stakeholders in education can be, knowledge that seemed to elude her predecessor whose actual school experience was mostly limited to no excuses charter schools.  Regardless of one’s opinions about Common Core or state testing, Commissioner Elia seemed well positioned to ease tensions in the Empire State.

That was the theory, anyway.

Commissioner Elia began her tenure with a “listening tour” where she visited districts across the state to hear concerns and make the case that the state was heading in the correct direction – even if that direction was causing widespread concerns.  This was meant to distinguish herself from Commissioner John King who was widely regarded as unwilling or unable to listen, and to present herself as an NYSED Commissioner eager to discuss with the public.  One can probably give Commissioner Elia credit for both speaking to the public and for sticking with her belief in the importance of annual testing.  In a talk at Sweet Home Middle School in the Erie County school district where Commissioner Elia began her teaching career, she told attendees that “Life is one big test.  We have go to get to the point where people are at peace with that.”

Commissioner Elia’s tone took a turn by the end of the summer, however, when both she and representatives from the federal DOE discussed the need for plans to reduce opt outs in New York.  The Commissioner probably felt that she would have some support from both Governor Andrew Cuomo and Chancellor of the Board of Regents Merryl Tisch.  After all, Governor Cuomo unleashed a torrent of harsh measures using annual testing in his 2015 budget address, and Chancellor Tisch, speaking to the New York State Council of School Superintendents, compared opting out of state tests with refusing to vaccinate your child.  Commissioner Elia probably felt she had plenty of back up when she followed her conversations with Washington on possible consequences for districts with high opt out numbers with her own opinion that the movement was “not reasonable” and that any educators who supported it were “unethical”.

In short order, however, the Commissioner found herself standing alone with both Chancellor Tisch and Governor Cuomo emphatically denying any plans to threaten school districts with loss of funding if they had high opt out rates.  Commissioner Elia quickly admitted that parents have the right to opt their children out of the state exams, although she also emphasized that she hoped to convince them otherwise.  Governor Cuomo followed this in September by announcing a commission to review the Common Core standards and their implementation in New York.  The Regents, meanwhile, after giving districts more time to work out how to use state tests in teacher evaluation, announced a two year moratorium on the use of the state tests for those evaluations – although local tests will still need to be used.

Then last week, Commissioner Elia announced the latest changes to testing in the Empire State – removal of time limits on the state examinations:

“I heard from parents across this state and from teachers that part of the stresses that we had on our kids was that they were timed, and particularly younger children,” the commissioner said in a question-and-answer period following her testimony on Gov. Cuomo’s $145 billion budget proposal.

“So if they are working productively, then they will be able to continue the assessment in a setting where they can read, comprehend and respond to the questions that correspond,” Elia said of students who will be taking the tests this year.

Interestingly enough, it is possible for standardized tests, especially criterion referenced tests, to be administered without time limits.  After all, if the purpose of a test is to see if a child knows a specific bit of content or skill, the ability to do it in 5 minutes versus 10 minutes is not as significant as actually knowing it.  And I will go out on the limb and simply acknowledge that anything which reduces the likelihood that 8 year olds will vomit and wet themselves during testing is a move in the right direction.  That’s the good news.

On the other hand, one does have to wonder how this move reduces the amount of time consumed by state testing, and the logistic challenges with schools potentially having to proctor students for very various lengths of time will be interesting.  Moreover, will all of these moves by high authorities in Albany – increasing the length of time to modify and implement Common Core Standards, a temporary moratorium on high stakes purposes for the state standardized exams, removing time limits from the exams themselves – do anything to make a dent in the state’s nation leading opt out numbers?  All of these options were available a year ago, but Governor Cuomo and Chancellor Tisch chose to pursue a punishing agenda on teacher and school evaluation, only backing off when the governor’s approval ratings plunged and the scale of test refusal became clear over the summer.  With the federal government strongly urging state education authorities to get a handle on their test refusal situations (or risk sanctions from the USDOE), it seems most likely that all of these moves are designed to keep opt outs from increasing this year and to convince parents who refused the tests last year to come back.  After all, visibly beating up on schools and teachers got them where they are now.  Maybe a velvet glove will help.

Opt Out leaders are not buying it.  Former New York school principal and current director of the Network for Public Education Carol Burris sees Opt Out as permanent fixture in education unless more dramatic changes are made.  According to Ms. Burris, leaders in the movement remain unconvinced and are energized by USDOE moves to convinced states to lower the boom on test refusal:

Jeanette Deutermann, lead of the Long Island, New York Opt Out, agrees. And she is furious with what she sees as the scare tactics being spread by the media based on the threatening letter issued by Acting Secretary of Education John King.

“As opt outs take root in NY and spread across the country, the federal and state governments continue to play a bizarre game of “yes we will, no we won’t” concerning funding threats. This year the threat took a different spin. The Feds gave the states a great little ‘bullying toolkit’ which basically says, ‘these parents aren’t afraid of us. Make sure they’re afraid of YOU.’ They came up short on one key fact: the USDOE and the SED have no authority to strip our schools of funding for a parent-led action. Our schools are in compliance. Our children are administered the test. We, the parents, direct our children not to take it. There is no law or regulation in NY that affords the SED the right to arbitrarily decide to withhold funds from our local districts.”

Other leaders in test refusal agree, citing the efforts from Albany as entirely missing the point of their concerns over the tests and accompanying policies.  President of Community Education Council 31, Michael Reilly, told Chalkbeat: “I think she’s trying to put a bandaid on the issues that parents and educators have raised…This is one attempt to appease parents. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s well thought out.”  Lisa Rudley of New York Allies for Public Education was dismissive and said that Commissioner Elia was still treating the tests as more misunderstood than in need of major changes.  Time, of course, will tell, but New York’s strongest opponents of the current testing environment are thoroughly unconvinced and confident that test refusals will continue.

Maybe next year, Governor Cuomo can propose a new iPhone for every family that opts in.

 

 

cat on leash

NYSED Trying To Convince Opt Out To Just Take The Test Already….

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Filed under Common Core, John King, MaryEllen Elia, NCLB, New York Board of Regents, Opt Out, Testing

Andrew Cuomo and the Difference a Year Makes

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo began 2015 with a hard charge against public schools and public school teachers in particular.  Having called public education a “monopoly”  he wanted to “bust” during his reelection campaign in 2014,  he vetoed a bill his own office had proposed that would have protected teachers and principals from consequences because of low test scores for a two year period, and his office opened a correspondence with Regents Chancellor Dr. Merryl Tisch where they both agreed that it was necessary to change teacher and principal evaluations to greatly increase the portion determined by growth measures on standardized tests.

The Governor came out swinging for New York’s public schools in his 2015 State of the State Address, delivered on January 21st:

Education – the great equalizer. And this is the area, my friends where I think we need to do the most reform and frankly where reform is going to be difficult, given the situation of the way education is funded in this state. Our education system needs dramatic reform and it has for years and I believe this is the year to do it. This is the year to roll up our sleeves and take on the dramatic challenge that has eluded us for so many years for so many reasons.

Governor Cuomo dedicated 2,254 words of his 10, 324 word speech to P-12 education, and he certainly kept his promise to put forth “dramatic reform.”  He attacked the quality of teachers by citing a entry exam that nearly a third of prospective teachers did not pass in the previous year.  He attacked the then existing teacher evaluation system in the state, which he had previously championed, as “baloney” because it rated too many teachers as effective and highly effective.  The Governor justified this by citing that “only” 38% of students were “college ready” and he rattled off other proficiency levels on state exams as more proof that very many more teachers have to be rated ineffective.  In doing so, he failed to mention that the cut scores for “proficient” and “highly proficient” were deliberately pegged by the New York State Education Department to scale scores that only about a third of students were expected to reach.  Despite this, Governor Cuomo took it as a matter of faith that many more teachers deserved to be labeled ineffective, and his proposed teacher evaluation system shifted 50% of teacher evaluations to student growth on standardized exams.  Further, he demanded the use of outside evaluators for teacher observations, and the book that was released with his address specified that those evaluators would count for 35% of teachers’ ratings, leaving local administrators with only 15% of input on their own teachers.  He also called for tenure to be limited to teachers who received 5 consecutive years of effective ratings, and he offered a $20,000 bonus for highly rated teachers.  That was joined by a proposal to allow school districts to get rid of any teacher with two ineffective ratings.

The Governor went on to scoff at the idea of more money helping the schools he labeled as failing, and instead called for any school that is deemed failing for three years to be turned over to another school district, a not-for-profit, or a turn around “expert” and he specifically cited charter schools as part of that effort, calling for statewide cap to be lifted.  Governor Cuomo addressed funding, but largely to hold the state’s school hostage to his reforms: he proposed an increase in funding of 4.8% or $1.1 billion if, and only if, the legislature passed his reforms – otherwise, the increase would top out at 1.7% or $377 million.  Mind you, this is in a state where Albany has continued to use the Gap Elimination Adjustment for years after the economic crisis eased, cutting promised aid from school districts to plug holes in revenue shortfalls for the entire state budget.  This accounting trick has cost New York public schools billions of dollars in promised state aid from an aid budget that itself was short $5.6 billion needed to meet long promised commitments to equity in school funding.

The Governor forcefully went after this agenda, spending copious amounts of political capital and goodwill among the public, and while he did not get everything he wanted, on teacher evaluations, he finally forced state lawmakers to give him precisely what he wanted in order to meet the budget deadline.  By all accounts, Governor Cuomo had won a sweeping change that was bound that transform New York into a cutting edge laboratory in the “test and punish” philosophy of education “improvement”.

What has happened since then has been a lot different.

Over the summer, NYSED’s new Commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, went on a “listening tour” of the state to, in theory, hear concerns of parents and teachers after the rocky tenure of her predecessor Dr. John King, Jr., but she also made her take on high stakes testing apparent by calling life “one big test“.  Commissioner Elia’s “charm” took a different turn when she announced to reporters that her office was in communication with the federal education department over potential consequences for schools and school districts that failed to test 95% of all students.  However, that stance was almost immediately reversed by Regents Chancellor Tisch who declared that Washington was leaving the matter to the state and that the Regents had no intention of withholding funds, and even Governor Cuomo echoed that sentiment, leaving the new Commissioner out on a limb from which she bid a hasty retreat.

Things got even weirder in the Fall when Governor Cuomo, citing widespread dissatisfaction with the implementation of the Common Core State Standards as well as questions about their quality and lack of input from stakeholders, announced a new commission to review the standards, review New York’s curriculum guidance and support, and review the testing environment in the state.  The commission returned in December with a framework of proposals, including pushing full transition of changes to how standards are implemented and teachers are evaluated out to the 2019-2020 school year, although critics remained only cautiously skeptical.

Meanwhile, Regents Chancellor Tisch was seeking wiggle room in the reform environment as well.  As early as April last year, she suggested that school districts would need an additional year to implement the evaluation system passed in the state budget, and in December, the Board of Regents went further by pushing the deadline for using state test scores in teacher evaluation to the 2019-2020 school year as well.  While most districts are still operating under the previous evaluation system where 20% of teacher evaluation is based upon state scores, 20% based upon local measures, and 60% on observations, this move by the Regents means that the portion tied to the contentious state tests needs to be replaced locally – and if implementation of the new evaluation system happens in the following year, towns will still need more local measures since the state tests will not be used in evaluation.  Currently, 83 districts managed to negotiate an approved implementation of the new evaluation system, but they will now need measures other than the state exam.

Governor Cuomo took to the stage again this month to deliver his 2016 State of the State address, and the tone could hardly have been more different.  Last year, more than a fifth of the 10,300 word address was dedicated to his punishing P-12 education agenda.  This year? 364 words.  Out of a 9,683 word speech.  Barely 3.75% of his address.  And what did he offer?

  • He bragged a little bit about reforms that he made no mention of last year – like increasing parental involvement and reducing testing and the Common Core recommendations.
  • An increase of $2.1 billion in funding over 2 years.
  • Using that money to end the Gap Elimination Adjustment.
  • He made a vague call to turn “failing” schools into community schools, and repeated a positive platitude or three about charter schools.
  • Suggested that we can attract and keep the best teachers – by offering a $200 tax credit to cover their out of pocket expense. New York teachers may not have to worry any more about choosing between decorating their classrooms and a visit to the dentist.

This is, shall we say, a far less ambitious and far less confrontational agenda for a Governor whose donor base expects sweeping changes that benefit their interests.  Is there something that might account for such a dramatic change in tone and ambition?

 

Oh, right.

After months of Governor Cuomo’s aggressive charge against New York teachers, and after months of protests across the state, the Common Core aligned state assessments were given and reports of huge opt out numbers came in.  In August, those numbers were confirmed: 20% of New York State students eligible to take the tests, roughly 200,000 in all, refused them. This was huge increase over the previous year, and a majority of New York school districts did not test the 95% of all students required by federal law with a substantial number seeing refusal rates above 50%.  Governor Cuomo, aided by Chancellor Tisch and former NYSED Commissioner John King, managed for foment a full blown parents’ revolt against his education priorities, and everything we’ve seen since the budget bill last April – Commissioner Elia’s threats and rapid retreat, Chancellor Tisch pushing the new evaluation system off for a year, Governor Cuomo’s Common Core and testing commission, the Regents delaying using state test scores in teacher evaluations, Governor Cuomo reducing his own education agenda to “YaddaYaddaYadda – Teachers are swell” – is likely a sustained effort to put out fires and take the urgency out of test refusal.

This being Andrew Cuomo, of course, changes in tone are not necessarily tied to changes in substance.  While state tests may be on hold for teacher evaluations until 2019-2020, that merely represents a delay, and districts will still have to use some kind of test data for 50% of teacher evaluations when the new teacher evaluations actually get started next year. Assemblyman Charles Barron correctly points out that Governor Cuomo’s promised increase in school funding is more spin than substance, amounting to barely a portion of what the state still owes school districts under agreements made long ago.  In fact, the governor’s proposal would use much of that increase to stop hacking away at promised, inadequate, aid via the Gap Elimination Adjustment, which is a bit like asking school districts to be happy that they will only be starved rather than starved and punched.  Finally, nobody should forget how Governor Cuomo made a long list of promises to secure the endorsement of The Working Families Party and head off a challenge from his left in 2014 – only to give the progressive party the royal shaft.

Andrew Cuomo wants New York’s families and teachers to believe he is a changed and humbled man.  History suggests it is a scam.

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Filed under Common Core, Funding, John King, MaryEllen Elia, New York Board of Regents, Opt Out, politics, Testing

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.

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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