Category Archives: Opt Out

Being Thankful

It is easy when writing a blog to get caught up in negativity.  In a strange way, it can be a form of fun.  You sharpen your instincts for sarcasm while deploying your skills skewering policies and people actively causing harm to a topic near and dear to your heart.  In today’s public education battles, with billions of dollars being deployed to reshape one of our core democratic institutions without the public’s input, it is almost always easier to state what I am against than what I am for.  Sometimes that is intensely necessary as getting past catchy slogans and plans not backed with research requires taking claims apart with deliberation and focus.  But it is not enough. It fails to highlight the real good being done by pro-public education activists every day.

So I’d like to take this appropriate time of the year to consider for what and for whom I am thankful in addition to my family, my friends, and my community.  Every single group or event for which I am thankful has made significant strides to keep public education public and mindful of its core missions in an age when powerful forces are trying to bend it away from them without bothering to convince the public.

I am thankful for the Opt Out movement.  I am not against the prudent use of very limited and minimally disruptive standardized testing for very limited purposes.  We have gotten far from that in the age of test-based accountability, and the real consequences for the quality of education are well known.  Despite the evident dangers of test-based accountability, the federal government and the states, spurred by intense lobbying by private foundations, actually made the situation worse since the 2008 election, making teachers’ livelihoods tied to statistical uses of standardized test data that is not even supported by the American Statistical Association.

Parents, after watching a decade of standardized testing slowly taking over every aspect of education, are finally saying “enough” and demanding that education regain its sanity.  They are tired of being ignored and rolled over.  They are tired of being told the schools they cherish are failures.  They are tired of seeing test preparation pushing aside genuine learning.  They have been insulted by the Secretary of Education as spoiled complainers.  They’ve been implicitly called union pawns and openly compared to anti-vaxxers by the powerful Chancellor of the New York Board of Regents.  They’ve been threatened if their districts don’t somehow manage to convince and/or force them to test their children.

And it hasn’t deterred them one iota.  20% of New York state’s eligible children refused the state standardized tests in 2015, and there is little to suggest that number will go down.  The message is being heard broadly.  President Obama dedicated time to voice concern about over-testing, although the substance of his actual remarks was not impressive.  More impressive?  A report in The New York Times indicating that Governor Andrew Cuomo may be on the verge of throwing in the towel on test based evaluations of New York’s teachers.  This is the same governor who a year ago declared that the evaluation system he had pushed for himself was “baloney” and declared his intention to make student test scores 50% of teacher evaluations – which he got through the state budget process.

For Governor Cuomo to be considering, as reported by Kate Taylor of The Times, reducing the role of testing in teacher evaluation – and even contemplating removing it altogether – is tremendous.  It is not merely blinking; it is a flat out collapse, and I suspect the governor’s allies at Students First and other reform outfits will be howling their protests soon enough.  But for now, this development can be entirely chalked up to Opt Out’s relentless focus and refusal to fold under pressure.  Of course, history shows that Cuomo cannot be trusted, and he is probably calculating that if he can mollify suburban voters by relieving some of the testing frenzy, then he and his allies can regroup and focus upon taking away local control from urban districts and converting as many of their schools into charters as possible.  In fact, Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute already laid out this strategy in 2014 – saying that reformers had overplayed their hands by saying that even suburban public schools were failures and should instead focus as much as possible on getting no-excuses charter schools into place in urban school systems on the false premise that the test prep factories really represent “excellence”.

So the challenge for Opt Out in the future will be to recognize the progress it has made and to keep fighting so that all children are given schools freed from testing mania and full of enriching and empowering curricula.  I think they can do it.

I am thankful for the Badass Teachers. True grassroots movements are incredible to watch.  They are the result of hard work and organizing, usually spreading because a small group of people kept talking to others until a large group is formed around common principles.  It cannot be faked.  It cannot be bought with foundation money buying splashy web pages and getting “commitment” in return for funding.  It is born out of genuine, lived, passions.

That’s the Badass Teachers Association, or BATs, in a nutshell.  This organization of classroom teachers and allies was born out of teachers who were increasingly frustrated by the efforts of reformers to blame them for all of the problems that land in school but for which society at large accepts no responsibility.  In short order, it has grown to tens of 1000s of members across the country, and it is a vibrant presence in social media and, increasingly, the wider public discourse on our national educational commons.

And they have had an amazing impact already, influencing both national union leaders and legislation in our nation’s capitol.  Because they are a true grassroots organization, BATs leadership and BAT members are in constant and close proximity to each other, and real conversations about real teachers and classrooms are ongoing.  That led to genuine concern over the number of teachers speaking about workplace stress increasing under current reforms, leading even to recent suicides.  Members of the Badass Teachers contacted the American Federation of Teachers which led to direct conversations with AFT President Randi Weingarten.  President Weingarten lent AFT assistance to the BATs in putting together a first of its kind teacher workplace survey which went live in April of this year.  In a mere ten days, over 31 THOUSAND classroom teachers responded.  The team of teachers who wrote the 80 question survey were told to expect maybe 1000 responses.

The initial results are available online here.  On its own, such a survey highlighting the impacts of today’s education environment would be incredible, but the influence is much more far reaching.  The survey results gave the AFT enough information to convince Senators Corey Booker of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado to author an amendment to Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act legislation directing the federal DOE to examine workplace stress among teachers.  In a conversation with me, President Weingarten of the AFT expressed her enthusiasm for the work the BATs group did.  “This time the process was as important as the product,” she said, “Because the process empowered people.”

To witness the impacts of influence flowing up from the real grassroots – that is empowering and it is potentially very long lasting.  I cannot wait to see what the BATs do in the upcoming years.

I am thankful for the Dyett Hunger Strikers.   We live in a time when school privatizers have wrapped themselves in the language of the civil rights struggle and have claimed that their efforts to wrest control of our public schools away from democracy is a civil rights matter.  Given the history of local and state control fighting integration and racial justice, it is not entirely surprising that they have allies among traditional civil rights organizations on matters like testing and accountability.

But the overall package has little to do with civil rights, and while suburban parent constituencies have been angered recently by the impacts of over testing and loss of local input into schooling, urban communities of color have been experiencing that loss of voice for years now.  Dr. Denisha Jones of Howard University makes it very clear how school reform efforts aimed at privatization of public schools are not civil rights advances: privatization is unaccountable and refuses to serve all children as public schools do; school choice leads more to schools choosing the children they want rather than families choosing the schools they want; privatized schools employs huge percentages of novice teachers who they burn out and replace with more novices in short order – experienced teachers are, ironically, reserved for the fully public schools in suburban communities while privatized schools in urban communities get well intentioned do gooders with no experience.  In school privatization, wealthy communities retain full control of their schools while poorer communities are given “choices” — but only those the more powerful deign to give them.

With that in mind, it was incredibly powerful when a group of parent and community activists in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago did something astonishing.  They went on a hunger strike to demand that the Chicago Public Schools and Mayor Rahm Emanuel listen to what the community had been advocating for and planning for over several years: a fully public, open enrollment high school with a green technology and global leadership focus that had been carefully planned for within the community. The strike continued for an agonizing 34 days during which Mayor Emanuel pettily refused to acknowledge the strikers but during which CPS gave ground in slow dribs and drabs. The strikers won not only the reopening of their community’s high school, but also the commitment that it will be an open enrollment, public school not handed over to an outside contractor.  And while CPS would not commit to their specific plan, there will be elements of the green technology and global leadership focus in the school.

The strikers, however, did more than win some concessions on one school.  They put a dramatic spotlight on the inequities of how “reform” plays out in impoverished communities in our country.  While they were starving themselves for a fully public school, CPS, which had claimed budget woes in efforts to close 50 schools in predominantly African American and Hispanic neighborhoods, unveiled plans for multimillion dollar annexes in schools in predominantly white neighborhoods.  Jitu Brown, a lifelong community activist in Chicago, made this discrepancy in education reform crystal clear:

“There’s a huge fight now that I hope this hunger strike has helped to energize and that is the fight for sustainable community schools not only in Chicago but around the country.  You shouldn’t have cities like New Orleans where the largest base of African American home owners in the United States are labeled as refugees and their city is taken from them. They lose their county hospital. They lose their schools and now virtually every school in New Orleans is run by a private company that makes a profit off of administering what is supposedly a human right.  Children in New Orleans have a perfectly good school across the street but they can’t go because they didn’t win the lottery to go.”

Mr. Brown’s fellow hunger striker, April Stogner, spoke on this with John Hockenberry of Public Radio International:

“When you talk about community, the community should be involved in the decisions, and we were not involved. We submitted this plan. We’ve been working on this plan for well over five years, so it’s funny that he said you’re doing what’s best for our community. You don’t know what’s best for our community, or we wouldn’t have had 49 schools closing at one time. Tell the truth and say what it is.  They just want to make money off the backs of our children, and they feel like they can just come into our community and take what they want. But we’re not having that anymore.”

This was a fight that refused to cede the moral high ground to school reformers and put a clear spotlight on how little community voices matter to the people who claim to be acting on their behalf.  The fight for Dyett High School was a powerful message that while the civil rights movement has made great strides using federal power for equality, that does not mean that school privatizers can claim that mantle by grabbing power from afar and then steamrolling communities.  Mr. Brown went on to say:

“There is no group of people who is better than the others. We are different. You know, we have different cultures, but we all bring something…. and we should not stand for inequity.  Because an inequitable school system an inequitable system denies us the joy of knowing each other. It denies us the joy of building a country together. Building a community together. Building a system together. And we have for too long – I mean our white brothers and sisters, but I mean as Americans period — we’ve ignored the racism that flows through this country, that feeds it like food. We’ve ignored it.”

In a time when one of the most important discussions we are having as a nation is the one prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement and its insistence that we face the systemic inequalities built upon racism  permeating our society still, it is incredibly powerful for a community to rise up and insist that their SCHOOLS matter as well.  It is absolutely shameful that people had to put their very bodies on the line for more than a month to make that message completely clear, but it is inspiring that they did so.  I hope to hear much more from them in the coming years.

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Filed under #blacklivesmatter, #FightForDyett, Activism, Cory Booker, Opt Out, politics, racism, schools, Social Justice, Unions

Lies, Damned Lies, and PARCC Scores

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

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

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

It is a terrible burden being proven correct so often.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NJ ELA PARCC

NJ MATH PARCC

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

NJ NAEP AND PARCC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Common Core, Opt Out, PARCC, Testing

NYSED’s Incoherent Opt Out Muddle

Pity those poor zealots of standardized testing in Albany.

No matter what they do, no matter what tactic they employ those pesky parents who are sick and tired of standardized testing consuming their children’s education won’t come around to see the error of their ways.

First, Governor Andrew Cuomo, perhaps taking an anticipatory victory lap days before his November re-election, unleashed a torrent of bad ideas upon his favorite punching bag – New York’s unionized public school teachers.  He vowed to “break up” the “public monopoly” of our free public school system which dates back to the formation of the New York Free School Society in 1805.  Governor Cuomo’s preferred method of “breaking” public education is the use of standardized test scores and growth models to designate schools and teachers as failures ripe for state take over and firing.

Then New York Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and Governor Cuomo took up the role of pen pals after the election, declaring the need for much tougher teacher evaluation and tenure rules using, you guessed it, an even greater role for growth measures based on standardized test scores.  Governor Cuomo followed that communication by vetoing a bill he himself had proposed that would have given teachers and principals a two year grace period from professional consequences as a result of the still new Common Core aligned state examination, and then quickly announced a punishing agenda that led to 50% of teachers’ evaluations being tied to growth measures on the state examinations.

Dr. Tisch, for her part, attempted to take on the role of the velvet glove with a prepared speech to the New York State  Council of School Superintendents in March where she lamented the Opt Out movement in New York and compared it to the anti-vaccination movement:

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

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

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

We don’t refuse to go to the doctor for an annual check-up.  Most of us don’t refuse to get a vaccination.

Did you get that?  Standardized testing is as good for curing problems in education as vaccines are for preventing polio.

Dr. Tisch dug herself deeper in later comments, first trying to claim that the new teacher evaluation system over which Governor Cuomo held long overdue state aid hostage did not necessarily mean teachers would be evaluated 50% by student test scores, and then she publicly suggested that communities with histories of high test scores (i.e. wealthy, white communities) might be excused from the new evaluations – leaving a lot of African American and Hispanic teachers who teach predominantly in urban poverty on the hook and sparing their white peers.

When Commissioner John King, in a spectacular case of failing upward, left the NYSED to join Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in Washington, D.C., his replacement, MaryEllen Elia, formerly Superintendent of Florida’s sprawling Hillsborough district, was already known as a major fan of the Common Core standards, standardized testing, and evaluating teachers based on those tests.  Commissioner Elia immediately embarked upon a “goodwill tour” of sorts to listen to and to speak with stakeholders across the state.  The new commissioner did not waiver in her support for high stakes testing or in her opposition to opting children out of those exams, telling one audience that “Life is one big test.”

Then the opt out numbers came in with the results of the tests themselves, and New York’s rate of test refusal in 2015 jumped to 20% of all testable students, a huge leap from the previous year’s numbers.  And the charm offensive was over, with Commissioner Elia declaring to reporters that her office was in communication with the Secretary of Education in Washington over the potential “consequences” at hand for districts and schools where parental opt outs meant that fewer than 95% of students were tested as required by the No Child Left Behind act.  In other statements, she declared that opting out of the state tests was unreasonable and called school personnel who encouraged it unethical.

And almost as quickly as that was said, the backpedaling began.  Chancellor Tisch reported that the her office was told by the federal DOE weeks earlier that financial consequences were up to the state and that NYSED had no plans to do anything, saying, “I think when you withdraw money from a school district, what you’re doing is you’re hurting the kids in the school district. So I don’t think that’s an effective way to deal with it.”  The King of Test-Based Punishment, Andrew Cuomo, also declared that the state had no intentions of withholding money from communities that failed to reach 95% of students tested.  Commissioner Elia bid a hasty retreat from her earlier threats, first pivoting away from punishment to saying she planned to spend the next year trying to convince parents not to opt out of the exams and then saying that parents have a right to opt their children out of the state examinations.

The quick retreat from talk of punishment is no doubt tied to the dreadful politics that would be involved of playing games with funding, given that the funding in question is federal Title I money intended for districts with high percentages of children in poverty.  Withholding those moneys from the smaller number of districts and schools with high poverty and high opt outs while leaving affluent communities with high opt out numbers untouched would be a political firestorm, not to mention it is highly questionable whether NCLB was ever intended to punish schools and districts because of the actions of their parents.

The 2015 round goes to Opt Out:

mic drop

The future is, of course, murkier.  There is no chance at all that Commissioner Elia, Chancellor Tisch, and Governor Cuomo intend to back away from the central role of standardized testing in education policy for New York just as there is no indication that they really understand the multitude of reasons why parents are opting out.  Commissioner Elia’s “tool kit” for convincing parents to test their children will be an object of some interest, and there can be little doubt that significant pressure will be placed upon superintendents and principals to reign in their parents where Opt Out is strong or to block it from being established where it is not.

If Opt Out in New York grows by similar numbers for the 2016 examinations, the entire system will be on the verge of collapse, but it would be wrong to assume those numbers will materialize.  2015 was a particularly turbulent year with Governor Cuomo aggressively pursuing an agenda that made test and punish the centerpiece of New York schooling.  Further, the Opt Out movement’s future growth will also depend upon making inroads in urban and minority communities where support has been slower to grow than in the suburbs.  Nationally, African American and Hispanic parents are less likely to support opting out and less likely to say they would do so for their children than white parents (although they, like white parents, also value demonstrations of their children’s learning that are not based on standardized tests far more than they value the tests).  Given the civil rights history of the United States, it is not hard to understand and to appreciate why these parents might be more inclined to seek accountability for states and municipalities to take care of their children.  If Opt Out is to grow, it will need to listen to those concerns and articulate a compelling vision that addresses them.  Goodness knows, we can expect Commissioner Elia to tell them the test is the only way to hold schools accountable.

There are, of course, strong arguments to make for parents concerned about the historic failures of states and cities to hold themselves accountable for children of color.  The trends that harm education overall when standardized testing becomes a goal in and of itself hurts minority and urban communities even worse.  School closures, unaccountable charter schools, and the loss of non-tested subjects are trends that take their biggest bite out of those communities.  Further, contrary to the claims of testing advocates that only mass standardized testing can be used for accountability, districts and schools can use low stakes sampling to monitor the system and individual teachers can use small scale, formative assessment systems to track student progress.  The massively disruptive tests that replace the curriculum are not necessary.  Further, as Julian Vasquez-Heilig demonstrates, local accountability models not only exist, they are promising to bring communities back into how schools are held accountable.  These arguments need to be made more and more in public because we can count on NYSED to claim they are simply impossible.

For now, however, Opt Out has momentum on its side, and the bullies in Albany have backed down in a major way.

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Filed under Activism, MaryEllen Elia, New York Board of Regents, Opt Out, Testing

Welcome Class of 2019: What We Owe Your Future Students and Their Parents

Today, I get to meet the next class of students who have entered my university seeking to become high school teachers.  This is always an exciting time in no small respect because being a part of their journey from student to student of teaching to teacher is some of the most rewarding work of my life, and I am consistently grateful for how their energy and optimism help revive my own year after year.

In recent years, that energy and optimism have been even more impressive because the in public battles over education and active disruption of today’s education “reform” have impacted these young people more than their counterparts in previous times.  The morale of their teachers has been dropping during their time in the classroom, and the inherently busy and often confusing world of the classroom has been increasingly stressful to those with whom we entrust our children.  If we accept what I believe is the very valid premise that the choice to become a teacher actually begins during one’s time as a student in teachers’ classrooms, then the students I meet today are among a remarkable group of young people who remain energized by education’s possibilities rather than discouraged by current circumstances.  Nationwide, it is getting harder to find such young people to enter the teacher preparation pipeline.

And I have good news for them – there are excellent reasons to expect growing and vocal support from the parents whose children they will eventually teach, and those reasons should both encourage and inspire them.

The annual PDK/Gallup poll on the public’s beliefs about education was published recently, and while the results should be the subject of much debate and no small amount of disagreement, two messages ring out clearly: First, the public does not buy high stakes standardized testing as the best measurement of what teachers do, and second, the people who know our schools the best are the most positive about those schools.

Every demographic surveyed said that there is too much emphasis on standardized testing by very wide margins.  64% of the national sample and 67% of public school parents believe so as well as 57% of African Americans, 60% of Hispanics, and 65% of whites in the national sample.  Support for opting out of standardized examinations showed more variation, but considering how test refusal was barely an issue a few years ago, the numbers in the survey may very well be surprising.  Nationally, 41% of those surveyed agreed opting out should be allowed, and 47% of public school parents agreed it should be allowed.  Whites agreed with allowing parents to opt out by 44% while 35% of Hispanics thought it should be allowed and 28% of African Americans thought it should be allowed.  This poses a challenge to opt out advocates, certainly, who have made only modest inroads in urban communities so far.

Parents who say they themselves would opt out was as high as 31% of public school parents with similar differences among different ethnic groups.  However, readers should remember that New York State, a national leader in the parental opt out movement, posted a test refusal rate of 20% for the 2015 examinations (which nearly matches the 21% of African American parents who would personally opt their children out), so there is room, given just this year’s support, to grow test refusal by significant numbers in the next year, complicating plans to evaluate teachers using test scores.

Survey respondents might not mind that, however, as they clearly find standardized tests a poor source of information on how teachers teach and how schools perform.  All demographic groups said that student engagement, students’ hopes for the future, and the percentage of students who graduate and go on to further education are vastly more important measures of school effectiveness than standardized test scores.  Similarly, all groups believed that samples of student work, teachers’ written evaluations, and teacher given grades were vastly more important indications of student progress, and all groups believed that teacher quality, expectations, principal leadership, and increased funding were more important tools for school improvement than measurement via standardized testing.  African American parents were most interested in using standardized test scores to compare students with students in other communities, states, and countries, but that support was only 34% saying it was “very important” and overall support at that level was only 22% of all public school parents.

Parents and others similarly disagreed with using student test scores to evaluate teachers.  Nationally, 43% of all those surveyed agreed with using student test scores that way, down from the slight majority who supported it in 2012 and up 5 points from last year’s survey.  Public school parents were most vocal in opposition with only 37% in support and 63% opposed.

The PDK/Gallup poll reaffirms a long term trend in the survey over the years: people tend to think their local schools and the schools their children attend are better than schools nationwide.  Local support for public schools remains robust in this year’s poll with 51% of the national sample giving their local schools a grade of A or B, and with 57% of public school parents saying the same.  Worryingly, only 23% of African Americans and 31% of Hispanics felt similarly, highlighting known discrepancies in our highly segregated schools.  Nationally, when public school parents were asked what grades they would give to the school attended by their oldest child, 70% said an A or a B.  All respondents noted funding as a key issue for schools and quality as well with all demographics citing it as the most important problem facing schools and citing it as very or somewhat important for school improvement.

With trends like these emerging from the polling data, it is not surprising that direct action movements from parents and students to highlight dilemmas facing their schools and to challenge unpopular policies have emerged.  The Opt Out movement is a large, growing, example of parental activism in communities across the country aimed at relieving schools of over testing.

In other communities, activists have come out to support their public schools via direct action as they’ve come under attack.  In Newark, NJ, students of the Newark Student Union have been leading a movement to demand attention for how school “reforms” have harmed them and their community.  Even more inspiring is the story in Chicago, where a dozen parent activists, having tried every possible means to save the last open enrollment high school in their community of Bronzeville, are beginning the third week of a hunger strike to save Dyett High School.  While the press has been slow to notice the story in Bronzeville, it has caught the interest and support of public school advocates across the country.

So as I welcome my new class of future teachers to their first college education classes today, I also have a message for them:  It is tempting, even easy, to spin a story of public education under attack and of those attacks winning, but you must also remember that you have the confidence and trust of parents in communities across the country, parents who understand the value of the work you have committed yourself to learning and doing.  Year after year in polls, their faith and belief in you is clear.  In the growth of Opt Out, their understanding of why the test and punish era of school accountability needs to be rolled back is evident.

And in communities like Newark and Bronzeville, students and parents are putting their very bodies on the line to support the importance of a fully public education.  You owe them nothing less than full reciprocation and your every effort to justify their trust.  Let’s get to work.

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Filed under #FightForDyett, Activism, Newark, Newark Students Union, Opt Out, politics, schools, teacher learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outlook not so good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look Out, NY Opt Out: Here Comes the Pro-Testing Charm Offensive

The University of the State of New York (USNY) has a new Commissioner of Education.  By a unanimous vote, the Board of Regents selected MaryEllen Elia, the recently fired superintendent of Hillsborough County, Florida,  to head the New York State Education Department (NYSED) and serve as President of USNY which, in addition to overseeing the entire public K-12 education system of 7000 schools, oversees more than 240 public and private universities, 7000 libraries, the state archives, special schools for the hearing and visually impaired, over 750,000 licensed professionals, and over 200,000 certified public school teachers.  She replaces former Commissioner, John King, Jr., and unlike her predecessor, she brings significant experience with public education, including a decade leading the 8th largest school district in the country where she was awarded 2015 Superintendent of the Year for Florida just a few weeks before a series of conflicts with the school boiled over in her early dismissal.  Under her leadership, her district was given a $100 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to tie teacher evaluation and compensation to student performance.  While the grant program includes mentoring, principal evaluation, and peer evaluation, the district was also tasked to “develop fair and accurate measures of effective teaching” — for the Gates Foundation, this almost always means including at least some growth measures based upon student test scores.

Ms. Elia is certainly a change from former Commissioner Dr. John King Jr. whose impressive academic credentials were never matched with an equally impressive ability to listen to stakeholders and whose lack of experience at any level of public education was painfully obvious.  From her recent statements, Commissioner Elia is aware of what undid her predecessor:

“I think it is important for us to communicate with all of those people who have the stake in what’s happening in education,” said Elia, who most recently led the nation’s eighth largest school district, Hillsborough County, Florida, a racially and socioeconomically varied area that includes the city of Tampa. “So, yes, my plan is to be out in the state, listening to various groups and getting feedback and making sure that there is a response when that feedback is brought back to the department.”

Whether or not she is genuinely capable of do so remains to be seen.  Although she ran Hillsborough for an impressive ten years and was successful in securing the Gates Foundation grant, her removal represented long standing frustration with her leadership style which critics described as consistently uninterested in communicating with people she deemed as opponents.  More pronounced criticism described a workforce under Ms. Elia that was “cowed” and afraid to speak up about concerns for fear of retaliation, and board members complained they often did not get information they needed from her — even when a 7 yearpold stopped breathing and later died during a school bus ride.  Commissioner Elia had strong and loyal defenders as well, especially among the business community, but if her primary role coming back to New York is to lead a charm offensive that Dr. King was never able to do, watchdog organizations in the Empire State will need to keep a close eye on the substance behind the style.

While our new Commissioner is preparing to go on a speaking and listening tour of the state, she would do well to try to understand exactly why New York is the current leader in the nationwide Opt Out movement against today’s standardized testing policies, having seen test refusals jump from nearly 60,000 in 2014 to 200,000 in 2015.  In comments to the New York State Council of School Superintendents, Board of Regents Chancellor Dr. Merryl Tisch, lamented parents who opt their children out of standardized examinations, compared them to people refusing vaccination for their children, and pledged that “…we are going to continue to help students and parents understand that it is a terrible mistake to refuse the right to know.”  In April, Chancellor Tisch insinuated that the growth of the opt out movement was the fault of the dispute between New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state teachers’ union, making roughly 200,000 families pawns in a labor dispute.

So let’s just say that if Commissioner Elia is going to travel the state to understand the concerns of families and teachers, she needs to genuinely listen because NYSED has had cotton stuffed in its ears for some time now.

The first thing she needs to understand is that simply explaining why we test as suggested by Dr. Tisch is not going to be sufficient.  The still growing discontent in New York is not simply because nobody has bothered to explain the vision behind education policy in the state – to the degree that such a vision exists.  The reality that nobody at NYSED appears willing to examine is that parents understand that there are very real and actually tangible costs to making standardized testing as high stakes as it has become in the No Child Left Behind era, and, worse, they are increasingly aware that those policies do not work and should be set aside.  What has happened in the past decade and a half is a classic example of ever increasing perverse incentives that have taken standardized tests and converted them from an occasional check on the system into an increasingly important end unto themselves by which entire schools and individual teachers’ lives depend.  Since little has been done concurrent with high stakes accountability to actually support and improve schools with resources and innovative services, the result has been a policy environment where the tests have consumed more and more of the curriculum.  If you do not understand that parents are increasingly fed up with these phenomena and if you do not have a reasonable set of answers for them, then it is not likely that they will be swayed by mere explanations of why NYSED does what it does.  Parents want change, not platitudes.

It is unclear to me if Ms. Elias is suited for that task.

While New York’s new commissioner is clearly far more experienced and far more understanding of how education consists of intersecting and overlapping stakeholders that policy must consider, her record is no less devoted to the core elements of “reform” — Common Core Standards, standardized testing, use of testing to rank and sort schools and teachers — than her predecessor’s or her new Chancellor’s.  In the application for the $100 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Hillsborough predicted they would fire at least 5% of the districts tenured teachers for “poor performance,”  and the grant work led her to develop, with collaboration from the teachers’ union, an evaluation system that uses test scores for 40% of teachers’ ratings.

All but guaranteeing the percentage of teachers you will fire in an application to revamp your teacher evaluation and reward system should raise any serious thinker’s eyebrows.  It smacks of the kind of stack ranking of employees that, ironically, the Gates founded Microsoft finally ditched after a disastrous decade of evaluating employees that way destroyed effective collaboration.   If the Hillsborough application was taken seriously in the early years, teachers with low growth scores had to be constantly concerned if they would hit that bottom 5% in combination with other measures and be in danger of losing their jobs.  While not as daft as the Microsoft system that required every employee in every unit to be placed on a normal curve, the five percent prediction amounted to over 420 teachers a year.  As it turns out, the district came nowhere near that number by 2012, but it did manage to make a significant number of employees jittery.

Of greater concern is Commissioner Elia’s comments on how to incorporate test scores into evaluations as she enters a state with a new evaluation matrix that gives those scores an entire axis:

“The research is very unclear on any weight at all,” she said, when asked about Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to base evaluations 50 percent on tests. “There have not been any studies that indicate that 50 percent is better than 40 percent is better than 20 or 30. And so I think what we need to do is get out there, work together collaboratively to come up with what we believe is a reasonable approach to evaluation, and constantly be getting feedback. And when it needs to shift, we need to shift it.”

I’d like to offer a suggestion on what weight to give standardized test scores in the evaluation of teachers:

None. Zip. Nada. Bupkas.

The destructive nature of including standardized testing data in teacher evaluation is discussed above.  It narrows the curriculum.  It incentivizes schools and teachers to make the test itself the curriculum. It consumes instructional time and resources that could be better used.  It focuses learning on the least interesting skills and diminishes actual love of learning.  It serves as a disincentive for both teachers and students to take risks that might diminish test scores.  But there is an even more important reason to reduce the role of standardized testing data in teacher evaluation.

It doesn’t work.

Maybe one could have pretended otherwise in 2009-2010, but this should not even be controversial anymore.  Growth models for teacher evaluation based upon standardized testing data do not work.  In order for a growth measure to work, it has to be be able to peel away every factor that accounts for the differences among student test scores that is not attributable to the teacher, and we simply do not have statistical models that do this reliably.  Commonly used models have standard errors as high as 36% for a single year of data, and they would require a decade of data to reduce the likelihood of mislabeling a teacher to 12%.  Growth models are unstable, and ones that tend to produce stable results tend to be poorly designed. The models have a strange ability to label even teachers who are locally known to be excellent working with advanced students as ineffective because of how little room there is for students to not hit the model’s predicted scores.

No wonder then that the American Statistical Association released a statement in 2014 saying that Value Added Models should not be use for teacher evaluation.  Yet here we are in 2015 with Governor Cuomo having successfully browbeaten the state Assembly and Senate into passing a budget that makes value added measures based on test scores effectively half of the evaluation system for teachers, and with a new Commissioner who is pondering what percentage is “correct” for such measures. This all but guarantees that the tests will continue to have both a disruptive and distorting effect on schools and classrooms, threatening teachers who are good at what they do and diminishing the depth and breadth of the curriculum students experience.

It also means that the reasons for the Opt Out movement to both exist and grow remain firmly in place.

Education reformers today seem to treat any resistance to their favored policies as simple matters of marketing — throw a lot of money at consistent messaging and people will come around to realize that they actually love what you are selling.  That approach can work in the world of innovative technology where people need to learn how it can change their daily lives. Education reform is not like that, however.  First, we are pretty familiar with how standardized testing is overwhelming education as we well into the second decade of test based accountability.  Second, people do not favor using those tests to evaluate teachers; while over 60% strongly agree that evaluation should help remove ineffective teachers, 61% oppose using tests scores to do that, up from 47% in 2012. Third, in the same PDK/Gallup Poll, parents with children in school reported something they have consistently said over decades: they like the schools their children attend. For 30 years, the percentage of parents giving their children’s schools grades of A or B has hovered near or above 70%.  It has dipped lately, but that is as likely connected to the disruptive impacts of Common Core and associated testing as it is connected to parents agreeing with reformers.

So reformers may want to believe they need to sell families on a new iPhone.  In reality, they are peddling New Coke: messing fundamentally with something people like without giving them a substantial benefit in return.

This is the challenge Commissioner Elia faces as she considers how to mount a defense of New York state policy to an increasingly restive population.  If she continues to try to convince parents that they really love the taste of New Coke instead of laying the groundwork for the NYSED to walk back its disastrous policies, this will not go well.

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Filed under Gates Foundation, NCLB, New York Board of Regents, Opt Out, Testing

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

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

Mercy.

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

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

Mercy.

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

Mercy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t count on it.

Arne Duncan is terribly concerned about all this over testing

Arne Duncan is terribly concerned about all this over testing

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

Welcome to the Class of 2015 — We Need You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was Arne Duncan Ever a Child?

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan appears displeased with the national Opt Out movement.  In an interview with New York Times reporter Motoko Rich at the Education Writers Association national seminar in Chicago this week, Secretary Duncan stated that the federal Department of Education might have to “step in” if states do not make sure districts have enough students who take the federally mandated annual tests. States are required to have at least 95% of students in all schools be tested in each year from grades 3 to 8 and once in high school under the current provisions of No Child Left Behind, and in most states those tests are currently being aligned with the Common Core State Standards whose adoption was encouraged by Secretary Duncan’s DOE via the Race to the Top grant competition and the offer of federal waivers from the most punishing provisions of NCLB.  Secretary Duncan gave some acknowledgement that some students may be over tested, but he also went on to say:

 …the tests are “just not a traumatic event” for his children, who attend public school in Virginia.

“It’s just part of most kids’ education growing up,” he said. “Sometimes the adults make a big deal and that creates some trauma for the kids.”

Where to start?

Peter Greene of the Curmudgucation blog took on the broader set of Secretary Duncan’s comments earlier this week, and coined the term “Duncanswer” whereby the Secretary gives a response to a question that is entirely canned and skillfully uses ideas from the question itself to cover that he has no real understanding of the issue.  I’d like to offer an additional feature of a “Duncanswer”: utter refusal to accept responsibility for any negative outcome of your choices.

The Secretary of Education essentially told the parents of nearly 200,000 students in New York state alone that if any children are traumatized by the Common Core aligned testing it is their own damn fault.  His statement indicates that he views annual testing, particularly THIS annual testing, as simply an aspect of childhood, perhaps inconvenient, but not really a big deal.  But the important thing to remember is that if children leave the testing crying or sick to their stomachs, then it is their parents’ and teachers’ fault for being so dramatic.

Perhaps a review of recent history is necessary.  While Bill Gates may have been central to funding the development of the Common Core State Standards, we simply would not see them in classrooms across the country with standardized testing rolled out already and teachers’ evaluations connected to those tests without Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his signature initiatives.  In the midst of the financial crisis, the federal DOE enticed states with promises of funding via the Race to the Top grant competition.  Even states who did not get grants were encouraged to adopt signature reforms with the offer of waivers from the most punitive provisions of NCLB.  States seeking grants or waivers agreed to adopt common standards to prepare students for “college and careers” and to use accountability systems based on “student growth.”  It was, of course, just a coincidence that “college and career readiness” is the catchphrase of the Common Core State Standards which were less than a year old in 2011, but which had already been adopted, often sight unseen, by dozens of states climbing over each other for grants or waivers.  Since states would soon need new standardized tests aligned to the CCSS standards for use in teacher evaluations, it must have been a coincidence that Secretary Duncan had already awarded over $300 million to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) in 2010 to develop shared assessments for the standards that had been completed in June of that year.

So from an idea among some ambitious people with no actual experience in teaching and no expertise in child development and learning in 2008 to the development of completed and copyrighted K-12 standards in both English and mathematics in 2010 to adoption by dozens of states before the standards were finished to full scale roll out of aligned examinations with connection to teacher assessments in 2015, the entire system that we have today is fully the responsibility of Secretary Duncan and the Obama administration.  Others may have provided monetary support, may have glad handed various stake holders, and may have taken on the development process themselves, but none of that work would be guiding education in 43 states and the District of Columbia without Arne Duncan’s efforts.

And let’s be perfectly clear: nothing in education does or should move this quickly.  As Diane Ravitch of New York University notes, following “due process” guidelines for the development of standards of this scale and nature is important to ensure they are developed thoughtfully and that they are developed in a manner that is responsive to the numerous stakeholders in the policy.  In the time spent writing the standards, a more legitimate process would have possibly begun to compile the research base on content and learning necessary to begin the drafting process, but the backers of the standards, including Secretary Duncan, had a priority to move quickly before input could bog down the process.  If Secretary Duncan is irritated that so many people are now opposing the standards and the accompanying testing, he might want to learn that, in general, people do not like turning around and finding out that the entire basis upon which they thought their children’s education rests has been changed without public discussion.

And if the dissatisfaction is growing, it is because although parents did not know about the Common Core standards (as 55% did not in a 2013 survey), they have little chance to avoid learning about the examinations now.  While many parents are not well informed about them, that will certainly change over time as PARCC and SBAC exams continue in subsequent years. Parental discontent in New York has grown since the Pearson designed Common Core exams debuted here in 2013, and parents’ reasons are not baseless or simple whims. Multiple sources document known reading passages in the New York exams that are substantially above grade level and requiring students to answers questions on a standardized exam that objectively have multiple correct answers.  Elementary school students are sitting for examinations that take longer overall to complete than the bar exam.  With high stakes testing already having narrowed school curricula nationwide, parents would be correct to worry that teachers, faced with evaluations based on statistically invalid measures of their effectiveness from those tests, will face more pressure to devote time to test preparation.

Secretary Duncan, is it ” just part of most kids’ education” for kids to sit in tests that are longer than the bar exam, with reading passages years above their grade in complexity and interest level, ever single year?

Or is it the result of a set of choices that you helped set in motion?  One has to wonder what Secretary Duncan recalls about being a child if he thinks this system is “just part of most kids’ education” and not a rather extraordinary set of circumstances that is reaping some very sour fruit.  These exams are not magic.  By most reports they are not even all that good.  And they are far more disruptive than a basic accountability system needs to be.  But, boy howdy, the Secretary of Education is making them high stakes.  Just consider what Secretary Duncan did to Washington State when they had the nerve to allow districts to choose between state and local assessment in evaluating teachers.

These-arent-the-droids

But what can we make of the Secretary’s threat that the federal government may have to “step in” if parents opting children out of exams continues to grow?  Parental refusal to allow a child to take the exam is not a state policy violating an agreement between the USDOE and the state government.  States are not orchestrating opt outs, and in many cases, parents are given dubious information about the legality of their choice.  Can Secretary Duncan threaten states where opt out numbers mean many schools are not reaching the 95% testing threshold?

Dr. Christopher Tienken of Seton Hall University and Dr. Julia Sass Rubin of Rutgers University say the matter is hardly cut and dry.  First, the federal mandate for 95% testing exists so that schools cannot deliberately hide subgroups of students from accountability.  There is nothing in the law or in the intent of the law that prevents parents from refusing a child’s participation, and it is not the schools that are organizing test refusal.  Further, they note that the waiver agreement between states and the USDOE can override that testing requirement; in New Jersey, for example, only 250 schools are actually held to the 95% testing requirement and if they do not make it, up to 30% of their Title I money can be used by the state for specific interventions.  That doesn’t take money away, however; it allows the NJDOE control over money that it technically has control over anyway.

Drs. Tienken and Sass Rubin additionally note that if the USDOE has to sanction districts and schools for missing the 95% testing target they have missed the boat already.  In New Jersey alone, 175 schools missed the 95% target in 2014 without penalty, and, in fact, no school has ever been treated punitively by the USDOE for not having 95% of its students tested.  Can Secretary Duncan suddenly drop his agency on states and districts not for any actions taken by those governments but because their parents have gotten unruly?  How does he propose those communities seek compliance when his entrance into the matter can only make more people angry at the direction of educational policy?

For that matter, does he think he can long maintain his ability to coerce the states if the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act makes it out of Congress in its current form?

However this plays out, we can likely guarantee one thing: Arne Duncan will accept responsibility for absolutely none of it.  Maybe he just never stopped being a child.

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Filed under Common Core, NCLB, Opt Out, PARCC, Pearson, Testing

Shoe Horning Opt Out into the Unions vs. Reformers Narrative

New York Times education reporters Kate Taylor and Motoko Rich published a story this week on the burgeoning Opt Out Movement.  As the oldest paper of record in the United States, the Times has been slow to report on what has been a largely local story that has now evolved into a statewide and even national phenomenon.  While this is understandable given its role in the national discourse, what is not understandable is the way the story was framed into something unrecognizable to most participants in Opt Out.  The article briefly mentioned parent led groups working with teacher unions, but a reader with no prior experience on the matter would easily leave the article entirely convinced that Opt Out is both union promoted and union generated.

Secky Fascione, director of organizing for the National Education Association, the largest nationwide teachers’ union, said reining in testing was the union’s top organizing priority. In the past month, Ms. Fascione said, chapters in 27 states have organized against testing, including holding rallies; petition drives; showings of “Standardized,” a documentary critical of testing; and sessions telling parents they have a right to keep their children from taking tests, as tens of thousands of parents around the country have done.

“Does it give us a platform?” said Karen E. Magee, the president of New York State United Teachers. “Absolutely.”

Ms. Taylor and Ms. Rich would be right to note that union leaders like Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers and Karen Magee of the New York State United Teachers have recently given vocal support to Opt Out.  It is also true that other union affiliates have taken action in the past several months to support parents who choose to opt their children out of taking the PARCC or Smarter Balance testing that are rolling out nationwide this year.  Further, it is true that many of the unions find themselves in deep conflict with state capitols and with the Federal DOE where policies using those tests for teacher evaluations have originated.

But it is singularly misleading to frame this conflict as one that originates with the unions.

Diane Ravitch of New York University reported on her blog that one of the founders of United Opt Out, Peggy Robertson, had this to say in response to the article in The Times:

When United Opt Out National began over four years ago we were simply a facebook page with a file for each state. Within hours our FB group page was flooded with opt out requests and now we have opt out leaders all over the country and grassroots opt out groups popping up everywhere. I think Florida has 25 at this point – probably more since I last checked – and mind you they did this all on their own. UOO has simply been a catalyst and a support. What is even more fascinating, and sad, is that UOO has reached out to the unions many times, and never received a response. You will notice that United Opt Out National is rarely mentioned in recent articles. I think that’s because we represent the people. The power of the people.

Sadly, it cannot be claimed by the reporters in question that they did not know the parent origins of the Opt Out movement, either:

If the Opt Out story is only now growing of interest to the national education reporters of The New York Times because now national and state level unions, having seen where a significant portion of parental sentiment is heading, have begun to help amplify the message, that is fair, although perhaps short sighted depending upon your perspective.  However, to leave readers with the impression that a movement which has been growing for four years and which has resulted, this Spring, in over 175,000 test refusals in New York State alone, is working at the behest of the national teachers’ unions is not only disrespectful of parental leadership, but also it is disrespectful of facts.  While their voice and influence is welcome, union leadership followed the parents on this issue.

President Weingarten’s and President Magee’s support has been welcomed this Spring, but as Ms. Robertson pointed out, unions have been asked to assist before with much more tepid responses.  While disappointing, that is also not expected.  Union leaders generally have to preserve an ability to speak with policy makers, so a degree of caution in promoting a movement that aims to pull the rug out from under test based accountability and spark a confrontation with those implementing that policy is expected.  What has changed is that in New York, Governor Cuomo decided his reelection “mandated” was to charge like a mad bull through teaching as a profession, and nationwide, the Common Core aligned PARCC and Smarter Balance examinations are debuting — to not exactly glowing reviews.  Nationwide, increasing numbers of parents are tiring of annual standardized testing becoming a goal in and of itself instead of taking a proper role in monitoring the education system. No amount of condescending horse pucky from educational “leaders” will change that.

So the real story in Opt Out is that unions are coming around to support a parent led and developed movement.  While Ms. Taylor and Ms. Rich do acknowledge that some union leadership is not really on board, they missed the serious split within New York’s UFT — New Action Caucus may have put up a motion to support Opt Out, but that motion repeats an earlier attempt by the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) Caucus to pass a similar resolution in March. Here’s Lauren Cohen of P.S. 321 raising the resolution. This is an ongoing and contentious debate within the UFT not presented in the article.

So why miss the back story and leave readers with the impression that parents are a vehicle for union grievances?  I have to agree with Bruce Baker of Rutgers who commented:

The real story of how we got to April of 2015 with hundreds of thousands of opt outs in New York and many thousands more across the country is a messy one.  It involved parental volunteers, activists from a wide variety of political affiliations, a growing body of research on the damage of test-based accountability and the unreliability of using tests to evaluate teachers, and, yes, growing union grievances.  It is a story that would have to include the reluctance of union leadership to be seen in front of the issue to the frustration of both parents and rank and file members.  It would be about the slow convergence of many forces at work in our education system, including the shadowy world of deep pocketed oligarchs who leverage astonishing sums of money into even more astonishing influence regardless of the people’s will.

But that isn’t neatly dualistic.  That isn’t the story certain influential people want to read.  So we get this.

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Filed under Activism, Common Core, Media, Opt Out, politics