Category Archives: Privacy

The Long Arm of the PARCC?

Dr. Celia Oyler is a professor of education at Teachers College.  Recently, a teacher contacted her with an intelligent and cogent critique of the recent PARCC examination, including a few selections of content from the test itself.  Dr. Oyler published this on her blog as the critique demonstrated very deep flaws within the test, specifically that PARCC is developmentally inappropriate, requiring students to read far above grade level, and that PARCC is dubiously aligned with the Common Core State Standards it allegedly assesses, requiring students to demonstrate skills not evident in the CCSS standards for their grade levels.  As a critique, the teacher’s observations, backed with selected material from the exam, was pointed and a very valuable contribution to the discourse on the examinations.  Because of the highly secretive nature of the exams and because of the extremely restrictive confidentiality agreements those who have access to it have to sign, it has been difficult to find critiques that are actually rooted in what the exams themselves require.

So, of course, that could not stand.

Within a week, Dr. Oyler was contacted by the CEO of PARCC, Laura Slover, with official “requests” that she remove “all of the material reproduced from the PARCC assessments.”  The letter claimed ownership of all “intellectual property” for PARCC, Inc., claimed that Dr. Oyler’s blog “infringed” on PARCC’s copyright, “amplified” the breach of confidentiality the teacher committed by revealing the content to anyone, and that as an “infringer” Dr. Oyler could “be held personally liable for the damages incurred by Parcc, Inc. and those who have contributed financially to the creation and validation of the assessments, including without limitation the possible need, not only to create replacement items, but to create and revalidate new test forms.” Ms. Slover demanded that the material be taken down within 24 hours and asked Dr. Oyler to reveal the name of the teacher who contacted her with the material.  In fact, she openly stated that PARCC’s willingness to “waive claims” against Dr. Oyler hinged not only on removal of the material from her blog, but also upon her cooperation in identifying the teacher — within 24 hours.

Dr. Diane Ravitch of New York University received a similar letter from Ms. Slover because of her blog post linking to Dr. Oyler’s, and Dr. Ravitch as well as a number of other Twitter users had tweets linking to Dr. Oyler’s post removed from the micro-blogging platform.


PARRC, Inc.’s heavy handed tactics lead me to a number of observations:

First: We should, once and for all, dispense with the tomfoolery from Common Core and testing proponents that the PARCC, SBAC, and other Common Core aligned exams are valuable for individual students and their families.  For some time now, they have gone on about an alleged “honesty gap” in education where students and families were told by the previous state assessments that they were doing well in school while proficiency levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress “proved” they were actually floundering.  According to this line of thought, it is a good thing that many more students struggle to meet proficiency levels on the new exams because it is a hard “truth” that families must know.

For multiple reasons (kindly demonstrated by Jersey Jazzman both here and here), this is a load of hooey.  But it is even a bigger load of hooey that these tests demonstrate this new “reality” in any meaningful way for individual students and their families, and PARCC’s heavy handed response to test security breaches pretty well proves it.  Ms. Slover told Dr. Oyler that she could happily “view over 800 released questions from the spring 2015 tests that show the breadth and depth of the kinds of questions on the PARCC assessments.” That’s all nice, but a selection of hand curated items from the exams is not remotely the same as being able to view, and critique, the exam itself.  Without releasing the entire exam, as it is presented to students who take it, there is no real ability for parents or teachers or researchers to critically examine it to determine if it is the kind of assessment PARCC claims it to be.

Even more to the point, without returning the entire exam to both teachers and students, the claim that we are “no longer lying” to people about their education is just air. When my children take an assessment made by their teachers at school, we get to see what items they got correct and what items they got wrong.  We can inquire with their teachers about what the assessment says about their strengths and about their weaknesses.  We can find out what is going on in the school to help support our children in their learning, and we can ask what we can do at home to help support their teachers.  We can plan based on the assessment with the guidance of the professional teachers who know our children in context.

PARCC does no such thing.  Far from their claim to Dr. Oyler that “transparency is one of the hallmarks of PARCC,” the hallmark of PARCC is to label students on their proficiency scale and to provide a simple statistical comparison of students to other students.  Knowing that your child scored below, near, at, or above school, district, state, and national averages may be slightly more informative than previous assessments, but it doesn’t tell anyone jack frat about a single student’s strengths, challenges, or what can be done to better support that child.  Of course, there are many standardized exams that sort and rank students, especially college and graduate/professional school admissions examinations, but nobody pretends that those exams are meant to help individual students get a better education or to provide teachers and schools with actionable information on how to better serve students.

Those promises were made for PARCC.  They are unadulterated bull plop, and will remain so as long as the current reporting system remains in place where nobody knows a darn thing about how they actually did.

Second: I remain utterly mystified why PARCC retains such a copyright on a deployed exam in the first place.  The two testing consortia, PARCC and SBAC, were awarded $330 million in grants from the federal Department of Education to develop the assessments.  At the time, PARCC was comprised of 26 states – this year, they are down to 8 “fully participating” states.  The grant announcement in 2010 promised that PARCC would “replace the one end-of-year high stakes accountability test with a series of assessments throughout the year that will be averaged into one score for accountability purposes, reducing the weight given to a single test administered on a single day, and providing valuable information to students and teachers throughout the year.”  What we’ve gotten are – wait for it – annual end of year examinations and a set of “instructional tools” that teachers can use “at their discretion” during the school year.  States left for a variety of reasons, but the projected ongoing costs certainly played a role.  The consortium, however, still has expensive contracts with various states — New Jersey’s four year contract with PARCC could top $100 million.  Pearson, by the way, was the only bidder for the contract to write the exam.

PARCC, Inc has taken in a lot of public money to develop and produce the tests.  So one has to wonder why they get to maintain so much control of the test built for public use and on the public dime?  An architecture firm that is contracted to design a new city hall may be able to copyright the design, but they cannot tell the town who can enter the building or block off entire wings from the public.  When Northrop Grumman designed and delivered the B2 stealth bomber for the U.S. Air Force, they certainly filed patents on the technology, but they did not tell the Air Force who can see the finished product and when it could be used.  They built it with public money, and then they had to let the government decide how to use it and who could know anything about it – they relinquished control.

But not PARCC, Inc which goes so far as to continuously monitor social media to detect students and others who know test content divulging any of it in public.  While it is certainly fair for the testing consortium to keep strict control on the test as it is under development and in current use, the refusal to generally distribute the test after it is done using the copyright system is noxious and thoroughly antithetical to the stated purposes of the exam, undermining any reason for the public and for educators to have faith in it as anything other than a means of sorting and ranking children and schools without real transparency. We’ve paid for PARCC’s development as a nation. The various states pay for PARCC to distribute and to deploy the exam in their states and to score them.  But not one person has a right to see the entire exam, and not one parent or teacher has the right to see how particular students did on the exam and to learn from it.  And Ms. Slover revealed PARCC’s real reason in her letter to Dr. Oyler when she threatened to hold her “personally liable for the damages incurred by Parcc, Inc. and those who have contributed financially to the creation and validation of the assessments, including without limitation the possible need, not only to create replacement items, but to create and revalidate new test forms.”

In other words: money.  PARCC wants to recycle as much as the exam as is practical, and holding the copyright threats over those who want to study and discuss the exams is the best way of doing that.

So PARCC may hold a legal copyright – but the fact that they were allowed to do so in their contracts is absurd.

Third: Even if PARCC’s copyright is legally valid, is Ms. Slover’s application of that copyright – threatening bloggers and having content removed from social media – valid?  Copyright does not provide a complete protection from revealing material that is under copyright, and Dr. Julian Vasquez-Heilig, Professor at California State University at Sacramento, makes a pointed observation that “fair use” allows for limited reproduction of copyrighted material for a variety of purposes such as “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research.”  The fair use doctrine is not absolute and requires a careful balancing analysis in each and every case.  For example, “fair use” would not allow someone to set up a College and Career Readiness Assessment Partnership (or, CCRAP, if you will) and then just distribute the entire test under the guise of an “educational” purpose.

However, Dr. Oyler’s post was clearly a critique and designed to inform the public about the nature of the PARCC examinations.  While fair use under that category would have to be argued by people with expertise, it is hard to imagine why such an argument cannot be made.  Diane Ravitch reports that a board member of the Network for Public Education is an attorney with significant experience in intellectual property law, and his opinion was that PARCC’s claim has little merit.  Not only were most of the materials considered objectionable descriptions rather than excerpts, but also the question of fair use for actual quotations has to be considered given the purpose of of the blog.

Another potential fair use exception should be considered as well: news reporting.  While the law on this is a complex and shifting landscape, it is true that there have been court rulings that grant bloggers the status of journalists.  Critically examining the PARCC tests could not be more in the public interest regardless of the organization’s desire to wield copyright to prevent that examination from happening.  100s of millions of dollars of federal money was spent developing them.  States are contracted to spend 100s of million of dollars more using them.  While the secrecy about the tests make them utterly useless in helping teachers and schools design better instruction for students individually and collectively, the exams are being used for very high stakes purposes.  Annual testing is a requirement under federal law, including the revised Elementary and Secondary Education Act that passed last year as the successor to No Child Left Behind.  While states and districts have more flexibility in the use of testing under the new law, there is no indication that states are rushing to remove growth measures based on standardized tests from teacher evaluations, so PARCC still has an impact on teachers’ careers.  Students and schools are still being ranked based largely on standardized test data, and under agreements with the Obama administration that are still in effect, states are obligated to identify their lowest performing schools using standardized test data.  What exactly will come when the new law is in full effect is unknown,  but there is no reason to believe that annual tests will cease to play high stakes roles in how students are sorted, how teachers are evaluated, and how schools and districts are ranked.

I find it very hard to entertain the notion that PARCC Inc’s interest in being able to continually dip into a pool of unreleased test items outweighs the public’s interest in knowing the content and the quality of tests we’ve already spent huge sums of money on and which are and will continue to be used for high stakes purposes.  PARCC needs to put down the copyright club and legitimately engage the public whose tax dollars fund its entire existence.


Filed under Common Core, Data, ESSA, NCLB, PARCC, Pearson, Privacy, Testing, VAMs

Gates’ Money and Privacy Activism — Opposition to Ed. Reform Hits the Mainstream

A few stories caught a lot of eyes over the weekend.  None of that is good news for education reformers who have banked on stealth and little reporting.

The first is a major article and interview regarding the role Bill Gates’ money has played in the development of, promotion of and adoption of the Common Core State Standards in the Washington Post.  The story is not entirely complete.  For starters, it fails to disclose that David Coleman already had funding from the Gates Foundation for his Student Achievement Partners, so a meeting with Gates in 2008 is not their first intersection.  Also, it does not explore the heavy hand that Gates has also had in the push for more high stakes testing to evaluate teachers via his funding of the highly flawed Measures of Effective Teaching study, nor does it examine the role that Gates has played in enabling technology entrepreneurs to mine the data generated from those tests without parental consent.

Regardless, the article is both informative and important for several reasons.  First, it is one of the first times anyone in a major news outlet has provided a portrait of the diverse opposition to current reform efforts in education that doesn’t make it sound like mostly the work of Alex Jones style cranks.  The article even quotes academics who question whether the standards are based on sound research on how children learn or even if there is a connection between quality standards and learning.  Second, this is an article in a major outlet that does not equivocate in the slightest about how much influence one very rich man has had in trying to control the entire course of American public education.  While it does not editorialize on the question, it is hard to read how many federal, state, nonprofit, academic and corporate entities were lobbied by, influenced by or funded by Gates and not wonder what role democracy has anymore when it comes to our public schools.

Finally, Gates himself comes across as defensive and dismissive:

Gates is disdainful of the rhetoric from opponents. He sees himself as a technocrat trying to foster solutions to a profound social problem — gaping inequalities in U.S. public education — by investing in promising new ideas.

This would be more convincing if Gates displayed the slightest interest in testing new ideas before unveiling them in 45 states at once before parents and teachers have a chance to understand them, indeed, before anyone has a chance to understand if they are a net positive or not.  From Gates’ point of view and experience, this must make sense.  He has compared common standards to standardized electrical outlets and computer code as a means of allowing innovation, and certainly getting DOS on most desktop computers in the world led to a lot of software developers having a common platform.  But education is not consumer electronics, and bypassing the entirety of stakeholders who value public education for a variety of reasons was going to lead to push back, and even today, Bill Gates does not demonstrate awareness of that.

The second article appeared in Politico and was dedicated to parent activists working to protect their children from data mining operations tied to public education.  This represents another public airing of activities whose proponents would prefer to avoid being seen in the open.  The report quotes New York’s Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters about how parents have reacted when informed about the plans of technology firms to use pretty much every bit of data they can get their hands on, and it quotes worried data entrepreneurs coming to grips with parental opposition:

Many said they had always assumed parents would support their vision: to mine vast quantities of data for insights into what’s working, and what’s not, for individual students and for the education system as a whole.

“People took for granted that parents would understand [the benefits], that it was self-evident,” said Michael Horn, a co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute, an education think tank.

Instead, legitimate questions about data security have mixed with alarmist rhetoric in a combustible brew that’s “spreading like wildfire” on social media, said Aimee Rogstad Guidera, executive director of the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit advocacy group for data-driven education.

That fear, Guidera said, “leads to people saying, ‘Shut it down. No more.’”

Guidera hopes to counter the protests by circulating videos and graphics emphasizing the value of data. But she acknowledges the outrage will be hard to rein in.

Could the parent lobby scuttle a data revolution that’s been championed by the White House, pushed by billionaire philanthropists and embraced by reformers of both parties as the best hope to improve public education? “I do have that concern,” Guidera said. “Absolutely.”

The article doesn’t go into detail about just how much money is thought to be at stake and takes the data mining firms at their word that they only want to help, but I came away from reading it with one resounding message: this damage is entirely self inflicted, but the data miners see the parent activists as the problem.  They did not want to do the hard marketing work of convincing people that they were doing something valuable, and they did not anticipate that parents might see the data generated by their children’s public educations as something they’d want to protect rather than just shovel over for free.  It is hard to sympathize here, especially when they have avoided openness from the beginning.

Which leads to the third article from today: a call from the Gates Foundation for a two year “moratorium” on high stakes decisions based upon Common Core aligned testing.  This is the first official wavering from the Gates camp since the standards and testing drive began in earnest, and it is highly significant as an indication of concern that the whole enterprise is in trouble.  It may also be a miscalculation — yes, teacher opposition to using value added measures of their effectiveness based on standardized tests is strong, and yes, teachers have barely had time to adjust to the new standards.  But two years will not fix the flaws in VAMs, and it will not assuage parental concerns about the role of testing and data mining.  It will potentially take a chunk out of testing companies and data mining companies who were making business plans based upon all Common Core states embarking on wide scale testing next year, and I find it interesting that the Gates Foundation is willing to have them cool their heels while the standards’ supporters try to do something they have avoided all along: talk in public.

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Filed under Activism, Common Core, Funding, Gates Foundation, Media, Privacy, Testing, VAMs

Who is more important? Pearson? Or our children?

Some background:

My wife and I have two children who are public school students in New York City.  We, as many other parents do, had our eldest tested for admission to the city’s gifted and talented program.  I’ll be honest – this child is exceptionally bright, but creative use of verbal language, imagination, story telling (our eldest’s strengths), are not really part of the tests used to qualify.  Regardless, the score was high enough to qualify for a seat which was assigned by lottery.

Our youngest sat for this year’s examinations in January. Sibling preference in admission at the G&T programs meant that if that score had qualified as well both our children would be in the same school next year.

Our youngest missed by the smallest margin.

Now I must be clear about this.  Our family does not deserve anyone’s sympathy.  It was by sheer luck of a random drawing among the many children who qualified that got our eldest a seat.  Our youngest was not owed a seat, and our zoned school is another one of the highest regarded schools in the city and is very close to the other school.  We know families who schlep across town to three different schools in pursuit of the cherry that the NYC Department of Education has placed on top the public school system.  Then there are the families whose kids qualify but for whom there are no seats because they’ve greatly overpromised what they can deliver.  Then there is the entire issue of how so many of the qualifying students are concentrated in affluent districts in the city.

So we will be fine, but since we would prefer our family’s attention to concentrate on one school for as long as possible, we took the opportunity to make an appointment with the DOE to review our youngest’s test.  That appointment was today, and we were given twenty minutes to sit with the exam and the answer key under the supervision of a DOE employee.  It was actually a more helpful experience than I anticipated, and our DOE representative was really quite delightful and very skilled at explaining the tests and how they were administered.  I can tell you the following:  We found that our child was prone to picking distractors, especially as each section of the exam progressed. We found one indisputably incorrectly scored item which means the exam is flagged for an immediate rescore.  We also found a handful of items that I strongly suspect would make my friends in measurement and quantitative methods cringe.

And that’s all that I can tell you.

You see, our child was assessed using the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test (OLSAT) and the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test (NNAT-2), both of which are products of Pearson, and in order to get a look at the examinations, I had to sign a non-disclosure form.  Chew on that for a minute.  An official of the New York Department of Education had me and my wife sign a form promising that we would not specifically or generally disclose the contents of an examination that was administered to our child for the purpose of selecting a public school.  The contents of that examination, several of which arguably violate principles of good test design for young children, must be kept secret even though, of course, it will be redesigned for the next year’s exams and even though I can purchase any number of OLSAT related materials directly from Pearson.

I cannot even really blame Pearson here.  They have developed the examination, and there is significant money at stake for them in a) keeping too much of their material from being seen by competitors and 2) making certain that people have to purchase exam related materials from them.

On the other hand, I have no trouble blaming craven politicians and bureaucrats who contracted Pearson and agreed to terms like this which are good for business, but bad for public discussion of education policy.  What we did today allows my family to pursue our interests as a household, but it disallows any informed discussion with the broader community about the nature of measurements that determine substantial educational opportunities.  And there are real discussions that ought to be had.  This year, three times as many children qualified for seats in the coveted citywide G&T programs as there were seats available, but these qualified children are not randomly distributed across the city.  Districts 2 and 3 in Manhattan combined for 623 of those Kindergarten aged children qualified for entry to citywide programs while districts 7,8, 9, 12 (The Bronx), 16, 23, 32 (Brooklyn), and 29 (Queens) had none.  With an income segregation index of 57 in New York City, there is an important discussion to be had about the nature of these tests and whether they identify gifted or privileged children.  But Pearson’s intellectual property is more important than that discussion.


Which is ironic given how eager New York was to join with InBloom, the data storage cloud service that was going to provide storage for student records and allow technology and publishing companies to mine that data to create products for sale.  It was only the vigorous activism by advocates like Leonie Haimson on Class Size Matters that put enough pressure on Albany to halt the project, but it is by no means the only one that sees student data as a commodity.

What does it say that your child’s school records are able to be used without your consent for private purposes but that private materials with profound impact upon public school children and their opportunity must be protected?

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Filed under Pearson, Privacy, Stories, Testing

Open Letter to President Obama — You Are Listening to the Wrong People

Dear Mr. President:

I am writing to you with three different roles.  First, I am the director of secondary education and secondary/special education teacher preparation at Seton Hall University where I have been on the faculty since 2002.  Second, I am a lifelong educator whose teaching experience at levels from seventh grade to graduate school courses stretches back to 1993. Finally and most importantly, sir, I am the father of two school aged children enrolled in the public schools of New York City.  All three of those roles in life have prompted me to write to you, and it is my hope that you will seriously consider what I have to say, for it is based upon my devotion to my children, my experience as a teacher and upon the data that is readily available about what is being done to schools during your administration.

With respect, Mr. President, you are listening to all the wrong people about our nation’s schools.

When you were inaugurated, many of us in education had hoped that your administration would urge Congress to roll back the detrimental aspects of the No Child Left Behind act, which had taken the previous two decades of educational failure rhetoric and placed a punishing regimen of unreasonable expectations, high stakes testing and punishment into effect that left schools and schools systems under threat of a “failure” label if they did not achieve near miraculous score gains in standardized examinations.  Instead, we got the Race to the Top program which has taken the worst elements of NCLB and made them even worse.  Your signature education initiative incentivized participating states to enroll in rushed and unproven common standards, increases the amount of high stakes testing at all levels of public education, subjects teachers to invalid measures of job performance and creates preferential treatment for charter schools that cynically manipulate data on their enrollment and achievements, sue to prevent public oversight of the public moneys they receive and whose expansion provides new investment vehicles for the very wealthy.  All of these results have rich and powerful advocates, and all of them are damaging to our nation’s public schools.

The Common Core State Standards have been described as a state led effort because of the role of the National Governors Association in their creation, but the work of a very few people is far more directly responsible for them.  David Coleman, now President of the College Board, Jason Zimba and Susan Pimentel of Student Achievement Incorporated worked with a small group of core writers that were largely representative of the testing and publishing industries to produce K-12 standards in English Language Arts and Mathematics in less than two years.  This is a staggering pace for such a complex project, and it was conducted in clear violation of highly regarded and accepted processes for the creation of standards.  Dr. Sandra Stotsky of the University of Arkansas was a member of the validation committee that was convened, in theory, to validate the quality of the standards, but she refused to signed off on them when, by her own account, repeated efforts to have the research basis for the standards produced by the writing committees went unanswered.  Once written, the standards were rapidly adopted by states due to the incentives of Race to the Top and aggressive spending of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Diane Ravitch of New York University has repeatedly pointed out that this process was staggeringly flawed, and even more flawed than the opaque writing and promotion efforts has been the race to roll out the standards in nearly all states simultaneously with no small scale field testing and no known way for data from the implementation to be fed back to any body that is tasked with revising the standards based on such data.

Mr. Bill Gates seems enormously confident, absent any defensible evidence, that this is the correct path.  He provided funding to Student Achievement Incorporated and the National Governors Association, and has been spending lavishly since 2010 to make certain all forms of organizations continue to boost the standards.  Mr. Gates spoke this year at the Teaching and Learning Conference hosted by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (an organization he has given grants to recently), and his defense of national standards was telling.  According to the Washington Post:

Standardization is especially important to allow for innovation in the classroom, said Gates, who used an analogy of electrical outlets.

“If you have 50 different plug types, appliances wouldn’t be available and would be very expensive,” he said. But once an electric outlet becomes standardized, many companies can design appliances and competition ensues, creating variety and better prices for consumers, he said.

The version posted to the Gates Foundation website offers a more explanatory framing of the metaphor, but Mr. President, I hope the flaw in his thinking is evident.  Multi-state standards are not, inherently, a bad thing, primarily if used like the National Assessment of Educational Progress as a NO STAKES diagnostic tool, and Mr. Gates is correct that a variety of INDUSTRY standards have led to consumer innovations.  However, even after we accept a standard for early literacy acquisition to be age appropriate and based on research into how children learn to read, the process by which any given child meets that standard is vastly more complex than the process of attaching an electric motor to a hand blender; worse, it does not demonstrate an understanding that children develop at very varied rates, and that an age appropriate target for one child may be entirely inappropriate for a peer in the same classroom.

Even assuming that Mr. Gates is correct and that CCSS would allow teachers to innovate, Race to the Top and Mr. Gates’ own advocacy have worked to tie the CCSS to a regimen of high stakes testing the likes of which we have never seen and which are already incentivizing teachers and school districts to vastly narrow their teaching in response.  Mr. President, policy analysts refer to perverse incentives as those elements of policy that incentivize behavior in such a way that people can obtain the incentive while engaging in practices that are damaging or undesirable.  In this case, Race to the Top is the Mother of All Perverse Incentives.  Your administration required states to adopt test-based evaluation of teachers in addition to adoption of common standards.  This has resulted in states both enrolling in the CCSS testing consortia, and adopting Value Added Models (VAM) of teacher effectiveness as part of teacher assessment and retention.  Mr. President, you recently remarked that schools should not be teaching to the test even while your administration was stripping Washington State of its NCLB waiver over its desire to not use high stakes testing to evaluate teachers, but you could do little that incentivizes teaching to the test more than this.  Michelle Rhee’s tenure as D.C. Schools Chancellor provides an instructive anecdote.  Despite her denials and cursory investigation, it is very clear that her “raise test scores or be fired” approach spawned widespread cheating. That behavior is not excusable, but it is evidence of how far some people placed in extraordinarily difficult circumstances will go when subject to such incentives, and it is simply inevitable that short of cheating, the use of VAMs in teacher evaluation will result in more teaching to the test.

And VAMs themselves are invalid, Mr. President.  The American Statistical Association is quite clear on this in its recent statement on the use of VAMs for teacher evaluation.

The measure of student achievement is typically a score on a standardized test, and VAMs are only as good as the data fed into them. Ideally, tests should fully measure student achievement with respect to the curriculum objectives and content standards adopted by the state, in both breadth and depth. In practice, no test meets this stringent standard, and it needs to be recognized that, at best, most VAMs predict only performance on the test and not necessarily long-range learning outcomes. Other student outcomes are predicted only to the extent that they are correlated with test scores. A teacher’s efforts to encourage students’ creativity or help colleagues improve their instruction, for example, are not explicitly recognized in VAMs…

It is unknown how full implementation of an accountability system incorporating test-based indicators, such as those derived from VAMs, will affect the actions and dispositions of teachers, principals and other educators. Perceptions of transparency, fairness and credibility will be crucial in determining the degree of success of the system as a whole in achieving its goals of improving the quality of teaching. Given the unpredictability of such complex interacting forces, it is difficult to anticipate how the education system as a whole will be affected and how the educator labor market will respond.

This is clear-cut, sir.  There are no current high stakes tests that meet the requirements of a well developed VAM, and there is no evidence about how VAMs will influence the schools in which they are deployed, but your signature education program is incentivizing them anyway.

To date, no study reliably shows that current VAMs can be used the way they are going to be used over the next few years, but that has not stopped the Gates Foundation from being front and center in this issue as well.  The Gates commissioned “Measures of Effective Teaching” study concluded that VAMs can be effectively used to evaluate teachers, but Jesse Rothstein of the University of California at Berkeley demonstrated clearly how flawed the study was, especially how it drew conclusions only weakly supported by its own data:

The results presented in the report do not support the conclusions drawn from them. This is especially troubling because the Gates Foundation has widely circulated a stand-alone policy brief (with the same title as the research report) that omits the full analysis, so even careful readers will be unaware of the weak evidentiary basis for its conclusions…

Hence, while the report’s conclusion that teachers who perform well on one measure “tend to” do well on the other is technically correct, the tendency is shockingly weak.  As discussed below (and in contrast to many media summaries of the MET study), this important result casts substantial doubt on the utility of student test score gains as a measure of teacher effectiveness.  Moreover, the focus on the stable components – which cannot be observed directly but whose properties are inferred by researchers based on comparisons between classes taught be the same teacher – inflates the correlations among measures.  Around 45% of teacher who appear based on the actually-observed scores to be at the 80th percentile on one measure are in fact below average on the other. Although this problem would decrease if information from multiple years (or multiple courses in the same year) were averaged, in realistic settings misclassification rates would remain much higher than the already high rates inferred for the stable components.

It is almost inconceivable how it is that our nation is rushing forward with a package of reforms that are being implemented at breakneck speed with such damaging potential and with so little evidence to suggest that they will do anyone any good, and with mounting evidence that they are objectively harmful.  But one thing is actually very certain: these “reforms” and their attendant policies are making some people a substantial profit.

Three years ago, education writer and consultant and former National Board Certified Teacher Nancy Flanagan noted that the rush for CCSS implementation meant that a publishing bonanza was on the horizon.   Certainly, their implementation with the coming testing requirements has been a bonanza for Pearson who landed the contract to write and implement the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC)  testing consortium.  At a predicted cost of 24 dollars for a set of tests as the math and ELA testing comes on line, Pearson is guaranteed a huge new income stream from the more than 10 million students currently in PARCC states.  But Pearson is only the most public face of making money off of the reforms put in place by your administration.  Common standards and mass testing generate vast amount of data, and technology companies are starting up all intending to mine that data for profit.  This is ground that has been ploughed by Rupert Murdoch who, when he began acquiring education technology firms, identified a “500 billion dollar sector” waiting for “big breakthroughs”.  Bill Gates has also been involved in this sector, setting up the data cloud storage firm InBloom for 100 million dollars, and watching it close when parental concerns over data security and the plan to allow vendors to access the data could not be overcome.  But other firms such as Knewton intend to continue data mining and creating products based upon that analysis, and none of them, regardless of how intriguing their products might be, demonstrate sufficient care about the need to explain their services to parents, the need to allow parents and guardians to opt their children out of the data pool or the need to build real support among the people whose children are being transformed into revenue.

I am asking you as a father, sir: would this be acceptable to you?  I regret to inform you, Mr. President, that your own administration has abetted this by changing the regulations that implement the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act.

Publishers, testing companies and technology firms are not the only ones who are reaping new windfalls from your education policies, Mr. President.  It turns out that Wall Street investors are eager to see another aspect of Race to the Top, charter school expansion, continue as rapidly as everything else, and while many of them proclaim to be fans of the charter schools’ alleged “successes” it is also clear that many of them have also figured out how to make guaranteed money from supporting charter schools.  Hedge fund billionaires can use a combination of federal tax credits to make investing in charter school construction a vehicle that can guarantee a doubled return within 7 years.  This is entirely unlike traditional school construction funding via bond issues because such bond issues are done in the open and for a public with a vote for or against the responsible school boards.  This is done entirely in private and with no oversight and precious little public knowledge.  It is little wonder then that Wall Street interests are not only investing in charter school construction, they are also organizing PACs such as Democrats for Education Reform specifically to keep state governments granting more and more charters, something else that you enabled with the provisions of Race to the Top.

You might be able to justify this, Mr. President if you could claim that charter schools are actually the solution to American education, but to make that claim you would have to ignore evidence.  Many charters are excellent schools.  Many are terrible.  But there is no evidence that the charter school segment is consistently outperforming fully public schools.  There is, however, evidence that charter schools do not educate children with disabilities at comparable levels as fully public schools.  There is evidence that charter schools do not serve students who are English Language Learners like their fully public peer schools do.  There is evidence that one of the most prominent charter operators in New York City, Eva Moskowitz of Success Academy, is not telling the truth about the number of children in poverty that she serves, the real achievements of her schools test scores, or the rate of attrition for students with disabilities and language learning issues.

These schools are not miracle factories, Mr. President, but supporting their expansion is making people money.  Your Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, once opined that Hurricane Katrina was the “best thing” ever for New Orleans Schools because it shook up the status quo and got people “serious” about reform.  That “reform” has meant that this week, the last public school in New Orleans has closed for good, and the city school system in entirely comprised of charter schools.  Amidst growing evidence that many prominent charter operators are not equally educating students and amidst disturbing studies about rising segregation in the charter sector, I cannot help but wonder how Secretary Duncan justifies his statement today.

No wonder teacher morale is at an all time low.

Your public voice in these issues has been a disaster for you, Mr. President.  Secretary Duncan may be the most controversial person to hold that office since its creation, and he has repeatedly demonstrated that he is both insensitive to teacher and parental concerns and fully vested in a false narrative about American education.  Mr. Duncan has frequently repeated to charges from corporate reformers and privatizers that American education is stagnant and that we can infer a need for their favored reforms from international testing data.  This is part of a narrative of deepening failure which thoroughly ignores how American students have never fared well on such measures and how these scores and our economic health have little connection.  Mr. Duncan has observed that he believes our teachers are not educated enough and we should be more like South Korea, despite the fact that South Korea’s educational “success” comes with high costs:  20% of family income on average spent on private “cram” classes, focus on drill and rote learning that leads to high test scores, and wide recognition that South Korean children face too much pressure, leading to an alarming youth suicide rate.  This is hardly praise worthy, sir.

Secretary Duncan’s misunderstanding extends to why people are criticizing the CCSS and other Race to the Top reforms.  I am sure that you know how he said that Common Core opponents are often “white suburban moms” who are upset to find out their children are not “as brilliant as they thought they were”.  Mr. Duncan apologized for the remark, but his insinuation that any opposition to CCSS is unreasonable betrays that he really does not understand the issue.  Mr. President, American parents, by wide margins, believe that the schools their children attend are doing very good work, and despite three decades of an unrelenting failure narrative, that percentage, over 70%, has remained stable.  What parents are saying is that Common Core, evaluating teachers by tests and the increase in high stakes testing and heavy pressure on schools to raise test scores at all costs have come too rapidly, with too little transparency, and with extreme negatives vis-a-vis how children experience school.  Mr. Duncan does not understand that as evidenced by his remarks in April with NY Commissioner John King where he called parental protests “drama and noise.”  Mr. Duncan may call the 10s of 1000s of families who have opted out of Pearson’s testing and the list of districts refusing to field test the exams “drama and noise”.  Many, myself included, call it a movement that is ignored and dismissed at peril.  I do not know if your Secretary of Education has told you that most opposition to reform comes from Glenn Beck styled cranks and spoiled suburbanites, but if he has, you have been sorely misinformed.

Mr. President, in 1999 Congress passed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, also known as the Financial Services Modernization Act, and President Clinton signed it into law.  Although the trends in mortgage lending and investment products that led to the financial crisis had begun long before 1999, the removal of regulations that prevented commercial and investment banks and insurance firms from blending their businesses greatly accelerated the damage being done to our financial industry.

Mr. President, I am afraid that history will look upon Race to the Top as your Financial Services Modernization Act, a tool crafted to be cynically misappropriated by interests with no concern for the public good.

And what is so frustrating, Mr. President, is how entirely unnecessary this judgment of history will be.  Our schools need help, sir, but it is not help that will be found by racing to implement new standards, layering on more high stakes tests, threatening teachers’ livelihoods with invalid statistical models or by turning more and more of our urban school districts over to for profit charter school corporations.  Our schools are afflicted by the same thing that afflicts our society: rising poverty and constant cuts to assistance for the poor.  16 million children in the United States live in poverty; that is 22% of all children, 38.2% of all African American children and 35% of Hispanic children.  Our schools serve communities, and our segregation by income has increased over the past 30 years, meaning that both rich and poor increasingly live in communities with people mostly of their own income level.  The Residential Income Segregation Index (RISI) scores for Houston, Dallas, New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia are all above 50, and the RISI has gone up in every region of the country since 1980.  Nationally, it is 46, an increase of 39% since 1980.

We see this when we look at our PISA scores broken down by the income characteristics of communities.  According to USC Professor Emeritus Stephen Krashen, the portrait of America’s schools look very different when poverty characteristics are considered.  In schools where less than 10% of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch, our PISA scores are higher than the average for any OECD nation, but where 75% or more of students are in poverty, the PISA scores are second to last.  Given that our communities are increasingly segregated by income, Mr. President, it is inevitable that test score data compared nation to nation will be misleading.

It is at this point that Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Eva Moskowitz, Andrew Cuomo, Bill Gates, Whitney Tilson, and a host of other corporate “reformers” will line up to accuse me of making “excuses” for “bad schools”.  They will insist, absent any evidence, that “great teachers” can close the achievement gap even if we completely fail to address poverty in our communities.  But it is not “making excuses” to insist that if we want a child living in poverty to succeed in school that we cannot ignore whether or not she knows if she is going to eat tonight, or if she will have a place to sleep, or if her parents will continue to work or any of the host of other matters that afflict children in poverty in ways that negatively impact their formal education.  Mr. President, we have known the long term impacts of poverty on children for some time now just as we have known that it has been growing and deepening, and we spend far less than our peer nations on helping to alleviate the detrimental impacts of poverty.  Nothing in education policy in the past three decades has done anything to address that.

That is not “excuse making,” Mr. President, that is aiming the analysis at the actual problem, whether or not addressing the problem will make anyone a profit.

You have an advantage that few of your predecessors had, Mr. President, and it is your demonstrated interest in and ability to genuinely listen to others.  Joshua Dubois wrote about your meetings with the families at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and how for hours, you sat, embraced, asked questions and listened to them. What strikes me, sir, is how, despite an election year warming up, you never once mentioned this to the press and never once used this remarkable testament to your character for political gain.  I urge you, Mr. President, to visit teachers, parents and children in the same manner, without cameras or vetting, and just ask them what they want our schools to be.  You will not find their answers easily mapped onto your education policies.

It is not too late for you to have a transformational impact on America’s schools, Mr. President, but it will take a number of immediate actions to have a chance.  I ask you to consider the following, badly needed, steps:

  1. Scrap Race to the Top: Your signature education policy is detrimental to children, teachers, schools and communities.  Ending it will not do away with the Common Core State Standards, testing or charter schools, but it will free states and districts to look truly reflectively at these initiatives and to voluntarily engage in as little or as much of them as they deem necessary and beneficial.  It will require proponents of these policies to make their cases in full view of the public in all 50 states instead of hiding behind coercive requirements for federal funding.
  2. Restore Federal Privacy Protections: Technology entrepreneurs may have truly powerful learning tools in development, but to make them work, they need student records deemed private under federal law.  Instead of engaging teachers and parents about these tools, they got your administration to revise regulations and are now mining those records without any meaningful consent.  This is unacceptable, and it must stop.  Our children are not sent to public school to be monetized without our consent.  Parents will listen to open and honest efforts to describe how these tools can benefit their children, but they will oppose efforts to bypass them.
  3. Be Serious About Holding Charter Schools Accountable to Civil Rights Legislation: Your administration recently expressed interest in making certain that charter schools meet federal civil rights requirements.  This is a good first step.  It must be applied vigorously, especially given how poorly many high profile charter operators do in serving students with disabilities, educating English Language Learners and retaining students of color after admission.  Your administration has granted enormous favoritism to charter schools, and they must be made fully accountable.
  4. Demand a Marshall Plan for School Aid and Construction:  Nearly all states are spending less money per pupil today than in 2008. In New York State, the average school district still receives $3.1 million less in state aid than they would have without budgetary tricks like the Gap Elimination Adjustment.  All across the country, our public schools are being told to implement a complex new curriculum, meet unrealistic testing requirements and to do so while having their budgets cut to the bone.  Further, in 2008, the AFT commissioned a study that estimated a need for over $250 billion in school infrastructure spending nationwide, a need that remains unmet.  It adds insult to injury that students come from homes that suffer from the deprivations of poverty and arrive in schools that are cold in the winter, hot in the summer and wet when it rains.  Our nation must do something about this.  At the same time, you must highlight schools where children in poverty thrive, not merely where they get good test scores.
  5. Replace Secretary Duncan: Mr. Duncan is entwined so deeply in the Race to the Top approach to reform that he is incapable of moving away from it.  Your Secretary of Education demonstrates no understanding of why people oppose current reforms, little willingness to see his mistakes as more than verbal slip ups, and he consistently misuses international test data to denigrate the quality of our schools and teachers.  If you want to protect our schools from the forces of corporate reform, Secretary Duncan cannot lead.

You have an opportunity, Mr. President, to retask the federal Department of Education with protecting our national Commons, our history of 200 years of seeing public education as a public good for communities and a private good for individuals.  Your administration has abetted the use of our public schools by private and corporate interests in ways that are actually detrimental to education.  If you wish that to not be your legacy, you must act now.


Daniel S. Katz, Ph.D.

Director, Secondary and Secondary/Special Education Teacher Preparation, Seton Hall University

Career Educator

Father of Two Public School Children



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Filed under Activism, charter schools, Common Core, DFER, Gates Foundation, politics, Privacy, schools, Social Justice, Stories, teaching, Testing, VAMs

Data Mining in Education — Incredible Potential, Incredible Arrogance

When inBloom fell apart, I expected that the argument would continuePolitico reported yesterday on the scope of data mining in education — and the stunning arrogance of some technology entrepreneurs.  According to the report, some analysts expect that data mining in education could lead to 300 billion a year in economic growth, and I find that credible.  I already use “small data” in my classroom via social media feeds that let me know what my students are thinking about as they read and to craft my planning around that input.  The potential of “big data” to craft learning tools for use by teachers and students is likely incredible.

And it will be thoroughly undermined by the secrecy and arrogance of its proponents.

Jose Ferreira, the CEO of Knewton, a leading “adaptive education” firm, is portrayed as frustrated and dismissive:

When parents protest that they don’t want their children data-mined, Ferreira wishes he could ask them why: Is it simply that they don’t want a for-profit company to map their kids’ minds? If not, why not? “They’d rather the NSA have it?” he asked. “What, you trust the government?”

Ferreira said he often hears parents angrily declaring that their children cannot be reduced to data points. “That’s not an argument,” Ferreira said. “I’m not calling your child a bundle of data. I’m just helping her learn.”

He goes on to say:

“It just helps children,” Ferreira said. “That’s all it does.”

But Ferreira misses the point by acting as if all he is facing is knee-jerk and reactionary parents misconstruing his work.  Data analytics may be powerful, but the firms involved in it have not be upfront or informative to either school districts or parents and guardians of school aged children.  While it is true that businesses have always made money via our public schools,  I can walk into my daughter’s first grade classroom and I see the publishers of her textbooks and other classroom materials.  The money spent is part of a public budget. I can engage in her curriculum, and I can consult with her teachers about her strengths and struggles.  Even more to the point, I get to know the teachers who know her school work the best and my voice and perspectives are heard.

But when the federal government alters education privacy law to suit the interests of data mining and when the firms themselves are unclear even to school districts how data is safeguarded and used, parents have legitimate concerns that cannot be dismissed.  With the rush to implement Common Core and the accompanying testing poised to create vast amounts of data from 10s of millions of students, it is even more important for technology entrepreneurs to spend time actually engaging parents and teachers about the potential of these tools and the safeguards on student privacy they intend to use.  If they are unwilling to do that, and Mr. Ferreira’s statements are not encouraging on that front, then the pushback is both inevitable and deserved.

They are not selling iPhones to adult consumers.  If I purchase a smart phone that has the potential to generate data about myself, I am capable of wrestling with the implications of that both legally and morally.  My two public school children, however, are legally obligated to be in school, and their public education is matter of concern for both our family and society as a whole. inBloom’s major error was only engaging state level DOEs when setting up a system that would have effected 10s of millions of children.  It looks like the big data firms that are eager to get in on the 8 billion dollar market in software and digital materials are not learning from that.

These are my children.  They are my responsibility. You need to sell these products to me.  You need to give me an opportunity to opt my children out of your system.

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inBloom Shuts Down. This is My Told You So Face

inBloom lost New York State and is shutting down.

The technology firm, funded largely by the Gates Foundation, was poised to take advantage of Obama administration changes to the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) to create a mass data “cloud” by becoming a multistate repository of student data.  In the past states might contract a database firm to create an in house system for their exclusive use.  What makes inBloom different was the scale of the data collection, the multistate nature of the project, and that instead of simply housing data for the state and districts to analyze, inBloom intended to let vendors use that data to make education products.

Activists and parents protested on two grounds: first, they were concerned about just how secure data that is supposed to be protected by federal law would be and second, the nature of the deals made with inBloom that allowed students’ educations to become ongoing revenue stream and that were made with no public input whatsoever.

Technology firms should learn the right lesson from this.  Individual learning products tailored by big data analysis are coming to public schools, and they have potential. But they should not come via back room deals that adjust federal privacy law and make contracts that fundamentally change the way states store and safeguard children’s private records without public input.

If technology firms repeat inBloom’s mistake and act as if they only have to market to 50 state education departments instead of to the parents and guardians of the 74 million children in this country, this fight will only happen again.

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Filed under Activism, Gates Foundation, politics, Privacy, schools