Category Archives: schools

The Republican Tax Bill is Anti-Public Education

A great deal of ink has been spilled on how the Republican tax bill working through Congress would impact higher education for the worse.  The highest profile item is the plan in the House bill to tax graduate student tuition waivers as income, effectively making the young people who are helping the nation move forward with critical research pay taxes on “incomes” that are tens of thousands of dollars higher than they actually get paid.  However, higher education takes multiple hits in the House bill such as taxing endowment earnings that go towards school advancement, reducing incentives for charitable giving, and eliminating student loan interest deductions that benefited 12 million borrowers in 2014.  For a bill that the G.O.P. is trying to market as a “boon” to the middle class, the House bill does not just tax graduate student tuition waivers, but also it takes aim at tuition benefits for higher education employees and their childrenThe New York Times portrayed a 64 year old night custodian at Boston College who managed to send all five of his children to college using such a benefit and who would never have been able to do so under the House bill.  Assurances from House leaders that their bill would grant most Americans so much tax relief that they would not need those benefits ring hollow as analyses show that various provisions in the bills could result in $1.6 trillion dollars of tax INCREASES on middle class earners over the next decade.

So while the House and Senate bills are not friendly to higher education (the Senate bill somewhat less so), there has been little talk about the potential impact on K-12 education if the Senate bill passes, is reconciled with the House bill, and sent to the Oval Office for splashy signing ceremony.  There are several provisions in both pieces of legislation that would take serious aim at K-12 education at the state and local funding levels.  Reporters and editorials have stressed that eliminating the deductions for state and local taxes (SALT) including property taxes, as in the Senate bill, will heavily impact Democratic leaning states with higher tax burdens, but the Governmental Finance Officers Association (GFOA) reports that eliminating SALT deductions from the tax code will have a broadly negative impact on tax payers in all states.  According to the GFOA findings:

  • 30% of tax units use the SALT deduction.
  • 60% of deductions for earners under $50,000 a year come from property taxes and the loss of the deduction would negatively impact home ownership and price stability.
  • 30% of earners between $50,000 and $75,000 a year use the SALT deduction. 53% of earners between $75,000 and $100,000 a year use it.
  • Income earners at all levels would see their taxes go up if the SALT deduction is eliminated.

More importantly from a public school perspective: the loss of the SALT deduction would apply significant pressure on states and municipalities to reduce taxes in order to offset the increases in federal taxes paid by their constituents.  Using the 8th Congressional District in Texas north of Houston as a model, the GFOA estimates that the district would see an increase in federal taxes of $306 million dollars.  Offsetting that with state and local tax decreases could impact $125 million in school funding.  Simply put: education funding is an enormous local and state expenditure, and it would have to be cut in order to provide any relief to tax payers who lost SALT.

There is something incredibly perverse about putting pressure on states and municipalities to cut taxes in order to make up for a federal tax bill that overwhelmingly favors the rich and corporations. It is even more perverse to label that as “middle class tax relief” when the outcome will be potentially disastrous for local schools.  The vast majority of K-12 school funding in this country still comes from state and local revenues which would no longer be deductible from federal tax burdens.

It is true that upper income communities benefit significantly from SALT, but it is also true that states with even vaguely progressive school funding systems depend upon those communities being able to foot their own school bills so that state aid can get to needier communities.  It was that principle that made New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s proposal to “flatten” state aid so that all schools got exactly the same amount of aid per pupil so outrageous and – eventually – a non-starter with legislators.  The elimination of the SALT deduction would create enormous pressure for additional tax relief from wealthier communities and shrink the revenue available for their own schools via property taxes and for less wealthy communities via state aid packages.

The pain for school budgets would not end with the loss of SALT.  The Congressional Budget Office recently scored the tax plan and estimates that it will expand on budget deficits by $1.4 trillion dollars over the next decade.  In the short term, current “pay as you go” requirements might cause immediate cuts to Medicare, but as deficits pile up over the next decade, Congress would have to slash as much as $150 billion a year.  Federal education spending could look very appealing to future Congresses trying to offset lost revenue unless the trickle down theory suddenly works for the first time everAnalysts have already identified $2 billion in student loan administration that might go as well as $62 billion in “all other programs.”  While the federal contribution to the $634 billion spent in the U.S. on public K-12 schools is only about 8%, that will be a tempting target for future deficit hawks and legislators boxed in by spending rules.

Federal spending K-12, while limited, has a long reach:  $14.9 billion in local Title I grants, $11.9 billion in special education grants, $9.1 billion in Head Start for pre-K children.  Most of this money is targeted to help states meet the needs of the most vulnerable children in the country – whose communities cannot raise enough revenue through property values.  Under this tax bill, states could easily be strangled on both sides of their education budgets with calls to lower state tax rates in response to the loss of SALT deductions and with fewer federal dollars coming in to help the needy.

The tax bill could further hurt education spending by reducing property values, restricting local and state revenue even further.  In addition to eliminating (or capping) SALT, the bill reduces the mortgage interest deduction from $1 million to $500,000.  Although this more heavily impacts very expensive housing markets, combined with the loss of the SALT deduction, the tax bill would make home ownership significantly more expensive in numerous housing markets, creating a disincentive for buyers across a large range of prices, and potentially depressing housing prices.  Although experts differ about the full impact of these factors on the market, the National Association of Realtors warns that home prices could fall as much as 10%.  That translates into more lost local revenue in an environment where state school funding still has not recovered fully from the impacts of the Great Recession – when we learned that municipalities were not well positioned to make up for lost state funds.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ analysis found that since the end of the recession, local revenue growth has only averaged 1.5% above inflation, not remotely enough to make up for lost state funds and increasing student populations.  If local revenues take another hit through the new tax bill, even that incredibly modest growth is at risk.

The Republican tax bill is a looming threat to K-12 education spending on numerous fronts:

  • Blowing a hole in the Federal budget will force Congress to look for savings in future budgets’ discretionary spending, putting money sent to help our neediest students at risk.
  • Capping or eliminating the SALT deduction will put intense pressure on state and local governments to cut their own taxes in the face of constituents with higher federal tax bills.
  • If those taxes are cut, municipalities won’t be able to generate more money for school budgets, and states won’t be able to generate more money for state aid funding – even as federal sources shrink.
  • Disincentives for home ownership in the form of increased costs will put downward pressure on home prices which will further impact local school budgets.

Put together, the threat to public education is evident.  This bill threatens federal aid for needy students by exploding the budget deficit, puts pressure on municipalities via decreased home values and loss of property tax deductions, and puts pressure on states via loss of income tax deductions.  School budgets HAVE to rise just to keep up with growing student populations and other fixed costs even if there is no concerted effort at school improvement.  Flat or decreased funding for any significant length of time threatens numerous factors that impact school quality such as class sizes, the length of the school year, and capital improvements.  We saw this play out across the country during the Great Recession and, more recently, with Kansas which plunged deep into a supply side experiment under Governor Brownback – and which precipitated a long term public education crisis.

If the Republicans in Congress pass this tax bill, there’s a good chance that we will all be Kansans next year.

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Filed under Drumpf, Funding, politics, schools

SUNY to Teaching Profession: Meh.

It comes as no surprise that in New York the SUNY Charter School committee voted to approve its controversial regulations that will allow SUNY authorized charter schools to certify their own teachers.  Faced with criticism that ranged from teacher educators to the state teachers’ union to the Commissioner of Education to the state Board of Regents, SUNY altered the rules slightly, increasing course hours but cutting time spent in classrooms.  According to the Times reporting, even Kate Walsh of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a self-appointed watchdog on teacher education that  rates teacher preparation programs without ever bothering to visit them,  spoke dubiously on the regulations as passed:

“It’s, ‘Here, we’ll make our candidates go out and take, what is this, a three-credit course that everybody will roll their eyes and say, “This isn’t very helpful,” but higher ed will get the dollars, so you get higher ed off your back,’” Ms. Walsh said. At the same time, she said, “I don’t understand how you justify reducing the practice time to 40 hours, which is not even two weeks of school.”

Teacher certificates earned at a SUNY authorized charter school will still only be good for teaching at another SUNY authorized charter school, so it is an open question about whether or not this will be a large pipeline for charter schools who are still held to state requirements that a large percentage of their teachers hold valid teaching credentials and are seeking to bypass that by doing it in house.  What is clear is that charter chains like Success Academy, which boast very high scores on state tests and very little tolerance for even mildly divergent behavior, are pleased since they will no longer have to bother with new teachers who have actually learned to teach and have existing teaching experience and knowledge of pedagogy.  The immediate upshot of the SUNY vote is that such schools no longer have to bother pretending that teaching is more than performance of a script informed by an enthusiastic reading of Teach Like a Champion.

I wrote about these proposed regulations, as did many education bloggers, when they were released for public comment.  Unsurprisingly, I found them appalling.  In order to circumvent their difficulty in recruiting and retaining qualified teachers, the charter school sector proposed that their schools, which disproportionately operate in urban environments with largely minority student populations, be allowed to provide the barest minimal training, justifying it because they get high test scores, and call it “teacher certification.”  Compared to the actual programs of teacher preparation – including extensive coursework and work in classrooms as well as a rigorous external performance evaluation – the now passed regulations amount to the slimmest preparation, 16 credit hours of instruction and less than a week worth of time in an actual classroom.  Presumably, it is okay for black and brown children to be taught by teachers far less prepared than their peers in richer and less diverse schools.  Add in the incredibly incestuous relationship between charter schools, their donors, the Governor of New York, and the appointees on the SUNY Board, and the ethical quagmire here is obvious…even by Albany standards.

Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University reminded his social media followers that some charters actually have a financial interest in this arrangement:

The “Company Store” metaphor harkens back to pre-labor union days when workers could be paid in company scrip that was only good for use in the store run by the company itself.  In the charter school case, many of the schools that will operate SUNY approve “certification” programs will gain back teachers’ salaries in models already proven by Relay “Graduate School” of Education:

Former teachers from the affiliated charter schools report being obligated as a condition of employment to obtain credentials (MA degrees and related certifications) from Relay GSE. That is: employees at the charter schools are having a portion of their salary taxed to pay tuition to a “graduate school” run by founders of their own charter schools, operated within their own charter school facility (lease agreement unknown), where courses are often taught by their own teaching peers having only slightly more advanced education and experience.[xi] We elaborate on this example in Appendix A.

Another way for affiliated charter schools to channel money to Relay is to set aside a portion of their budget to subsidize graduate education—but only at Relay GSE. That is, some EMOs (including Uncommon) have a practice of paying for graduate degrees obtained from Relay, but not from any other institution (unless the teacher can prove that Relay does not offer a degree in the same field). Teachers agreeing to pursue their degrees from Relay with school support must complete those degrees or, as noted earlier, are required to reimburse their EMO for any/all tuition reimbursement they received.

While this model is not as well tested in New York State, the SUNY Charter School Committee just opened the entire system of SUNY authorized charter schools to give it a try.

Education blogger and Rutgers graduate student Jersey Jazzman, however, pointed out a very important potential consequence of the scheme that may not turn out so well for charters who decide to bypass traditionally prepared teachers.  New Yorkl charter schools with high turnovers of teachers get to “free ride” on the salary scales at district schools because their teachers, mostly in possession of traditional teaching credentials know they can move on to positions where their salary scales and benefits are guaranteed by union contracts:

But teachers who start their careers in charters will only stay a few years because they know they can move on to better paying and less stressful careers in public district schools. In this way, the charters “free ride”, as Martin Carnoy puts it, on the public school districts, who by paying experienced teachers more create incentives for charter teachers to enter the profession. The charters never have to pony up for these incentives, making them free riders.

But the SUNY credentials are only good at other SUNY authorized charter schools, meaning a new teacher who get “certified” this way has no option to teach anywhere else.  So either the SUNY schools will have to find a continuous stream of new teachers who do not mind that their experience is not applicable teaching anywhere else and who will begin and end their careers in charter schools, OR they will have to cough up benefits and salary and working conditions that will keep their teachers.  There is not an inexhaustible supply of young college grads looking to teach with no prospects of a career in the work — otherwise Teach For America would not find itself struggling to fill its corps in recent years.

The SUNY Charter School Committee has clearly seen all of this and offered a big “meh” as the height of their concern.  But if quality education is the actual goal of charter education, they will not get there by ignoring the evidence that experienced teachers are more skilled than inexperienced ones and by replacing adequate funding with choice and calling it a day, especially in a state that is still billions of dollars a year below it’s target for education funding from a decade ago.

 

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Filed under Betty Rosa, charter schools, Corruption, Eva Moskowitz, Funding, MaryEllen Elia, NCTQ, New York Board of Regents, politics, School Choice, schools, teacher professsionalism

Mayoral Control And Mayoral Responsibility

New York legislators in Albany wrapped up yet another game of “Will we give Bill De Blasio an extension of mayoral control of New York City’s schools or won’t we?” recently.  In the end, law makers held off until the very last minute, passing a two year extension for the mayor that did not include the provisions favoring charter schools Senate Republicans were insisting on but against which Assembly Democrats drew a line.  The two year extension is a victory for De Blasio who has found out that Albany has trouble entrusting control to mayors not named “Mike,” and the lack of pro-charter school provisions shows that the daylight between De Blasio and Albany does not have to grind cooperation between the City and State to a complete halt.

The drama was also largely staged.  Although interested parties issued dire warnings of what would befall city schools without mayoral control, the bluff played by Senate Republicans was just that, a bluff.  Reverting back to pre-mayoral control school governance with only the months of July and August to figure it out was meant to scare Democrats into giving in on charter schools, but the threat rang hollow.  Governor Cuomo, who has never been shy about humiliating Mayor De Blasio, wanted mayoral control extended.  Even though they kept their mouths shut and did not win hoped for concessions, I would not bet against charter school proponents wishing for mayoral control as well.  After all, Mayor De Blasio will not be mayor forever, and if the next mayor is more like Michael Bloomberg, the charter school sector will once again deal with only one person in control of city schools who is indulgent of their wishes.  Certainly simpler than the complex politics of a city school board representing multiple constituencies and independent governance in 32 different community districts.  And even though the charter school cap remains where it is, backroom deals are allowing 22 charter licenses for schools that had their charters revoked or went unused to be recycled and reissued.

And it is not as if the so-called anti-charter stance of the De Blasio administration is so unwavering that the sector gets nothing from Tweed these days:

So if that is the theater involved in the issue, there remains a central, not often asked, question:  What about mayoral control makes it essential for running the nation’s largest school system?  Prior to the 2002 legislation that placed Michael Bloomberg in near complete control of the city schools, New York City schools were run by the central Board of Education whose members were appointed by the mayor and by the five borough presidents and by elected school boards in each of the city’s 32 community districts – which had much greater power before a 1996 law demoted their role.  Mayoral control legislation placed enormous authority into the mayor’s office who appoints the School Chancellor and the majority of members on the Panel for Educational Policy.  The 32 local school boards were replaced by “Community Education Councils” consisting of parents elected by Parent Associations of elementary and middle schools in the community districts and given even less  authority on school matters within those districts than the 1996 law.

Point of information:  I am a member of the Community Education Council in District 3, having just completed my first two year term and having been elected to a second term.  What I am writing here, however, represents only my views as both a New York City school parent and as a scholar of education – I do not presume to speak for the Council.

Proponents for continuing mayoral control certainly believe the current arrangement is crucial for school success in the Big Apple.  Mayor DeBlasio had dire warnings for law makers that not extending his school control would unleash “chaos.”  Speaking through a spokesperson, he said, ““mayoral control is the only proven governance system. Ending it would roll out the red carpet for corruption and chaos in our school system.”  Governor Cuomo was similarly dire about the need for extending control, but was more critical of his fellow Democrats in the Assembly for holding a tight line on issues like lifting the charter school cap: “For the legislature to leave with one million children returning to what we know was a failed management system is a dereliction of duty.”

I am certainly not prepared to say that the former governance structure for city schools was a marked improvement on what we have today – however, it is also a massive oversimplification to say that the previous governance system could not produce results as studies of Community District 2 by Harvard’s Richard Elmore demonstrate.  Further, while advocates of mayoral control have loved to tout various accomplishments, they are less inclined to entertain nuanced discussion and examination of those accomplishments.  Bloomberg Chancellor Joel Klein loved to boast about how the leadership team assembled in New York made great progress on raising achievement and closing the test-measured gap between white and minority students.  The problem with that claim is that it never stood up to careful analysis, as demonstrated by Teachers College Professor Aaron Pallas in analyses here and here.  While Bloomberg and Klein could boast about modest gains in NYC scores in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, those gains were not substantially better than in other cities that did not follow the Bloomberg/Klein reform program and their claim about narrowing the achievement gap was simply false:

Looking across ELA and math scores on state exams for New York City students in grades three through eight in 2003, the achievement gap separating black and Latino students from white and Asian students was .74 of a standard deviation. In 2011, the achievement gap was .73 of a standard deviation. This represents a 1 percent reduction in the magnitude of the achievement gap. The careful reader will note that the mayor has thus overstated the cut in the achievement gap by a factor of 50.

What about for NAEP? In 2003, the achievement gap, averaged across reading and math scores in the fourth and eighth grades, was .76 of a standard deviation. In 2011, the gap was .78 of a standard deviation. Far from being cut in half, the achievement gap on the NAEP assessment actually increased by 3 percent between 2003 and 2011.

Mayor Bloomberg said, “We have closed the gap between black and Latino kids and white and Asian kids. We have cut it in half.” But the gap has scarcely budged; it’s shrunk by 1 percent on the New York State tests, and increased by 3 percent on NAEP.

These issues are frustrating, but frankly to be expected as it is the rare politician who is willing to admit that he has spent a decade with unchallenged control of a school system, sought test measured validation of his approach, and came up with belly button lint instead.  However, it also draws attention to another aspect of mayoral control that hasn’t been discussed in the latest Albany spectacle.  Namely, who holds the mayor responsible and over what does the mayor take responsibility in this governance structure?  The Community District School boards were stripped of most of their authority prior to mayoral control, but they retained input on issues like hiring superintendents which, at least nominally, kept that closer to school district parents.  Today, that all flows through the Mayor’s office who appoints the extremely powerful Chancellor and has a majority of seats on the PEP.  The mayor may be subject to election, but it goes without saying that the path to that election does not necessitate a mayor who is attentive to what is going on in every school in every district across the city.  In fact, in his last election in 2009, Michael Bloomberg lost the Bronx to challenger William Thompson by 24.2 percentage points.  I dare say that he lost in most if not all of the 6 Community School Districts in the Bronx, yet he continued to control school governance there.  The people closest to the schools in those districts only have limited say in holding the mayor responsible for what goes on there, and their post-election voices are greatly limited.

This matters even more because the mayor’s office does not always hold itself responsible for the very schools it controls.  Consider charter school policy.  While it is true that the city does not control charter schools (except for the very small number authorized by NYCDOE), it is also true that the amount of daylight between Mayor Bloomberg and charter friendly politicians in Albany was nonexistent.  The Bloomberg years openly welcomed charter school expansion, aided in finding them spaces within city school buildings, and actively encouraged parents to seek educational options outside the control of DOE, setting up an environment where DOE run schools would have to compete not only among themselves but in competition with privately run organizations that were able to fund slick, professional marketing campaigns.  Success Academy alone in 2010 paid over $400,000 to a single marketing firm, Mission Control, Inc., to promote itself in a direct mail campaign to parents, and it continued this campaign in subsequent years, spending on pre-paid postage for application forms mailed directly to homes. Using such professional services, the charter network is able to portray itself as highly desirable and prestigious to prospective families.  And what, exactly, did Mayor Bloomberg, who welcomed the Success Network at every opportunity, do to position the schools directly under his control to compete in THAT environment?

chirp

This problem has continued into the De Blasio administration which, while showing much more willingness to support district schools with programs, has not yet grasped that Superintendents and building Principals are largely left alone to “market” their schools with no specific expertise and only funds that can be raised from parents.

The irony here is both evident and cruel:  mayoral control as exercised by Michael Bloomberg helped put schools serving the most vulnerable children in the city into a situation where they were simultaneously responsible for improving academic outcomes while following accommodation rules that charters are exempted from AND for marketing themselves in an environment where private organizations spend lavishly on direct marketing campaigns and the DOE schools are left to rely on $500 and whatever creativity they have on staff.  With parents bombarded from all directions by everyone except their zoned schools, it is no surprise that DOE schools in certain parts on New York have seen sharp declines in enrollment – which appears to be a feature rather than a bug of the system as set up by Albany law makers and abetted by Tweed under Bloomberg.  In Community District 3 in Manhattan, schools north of 110th Street have seen a decline from 2206 K-5 students in 2006 to 1469 K-5 students in 2015, an enrollment loss of 33% in less than a decade.

D3 Enrollment

However, if Michael Bloomberg accepted no responsibility to help the schools he enthusiastically put into competition actually compete, then his successor, Bill De Blasio has shown no real comprehension of the problem either.  Schools in areas with high charter saturation still rely upon shoestring budgets and ad hoc efforts by community members and school personnel instead of a enjoying a coordinated and funded strategy from the office that has direct control over them.  It is fundamentally unfair to expect that school principals, who have to possess a vast array of skills related to instructional leadership, management leadership, staff development, evaluation, school law, budgeting, and parent relationships, add on marketing and graphic design skill sets that are subject to their own degree programs.  Meanwhile, Tweed approaches maintaining enrollment at schools as if it was still the early 1990s.

Mayor De Blasio fought hard to keep mayoral control.  It is past time for the Mayor’s office to look at the impact of that control on the schools it runs and take mayoral responsibility for the sustainability of fully public schools in New York City.

 

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Filed under #blacklivesmatter, charter schools, Corruption, Eva Moskowitz, Funding, politics, schools, Success Academy

An Opt Out Lament – and a Deeper Lesson

It is nearing the end of March, which means that my social media feeds and the blogs that I read are full of materials pertaining to the Opt Out movement.  Contrary to years of efforts by testing advocates to portray Opt Out as wholly of phenomenon of privileged parents, I know that the efforts I witness represent the work of parents facing bullying and misinformation from administrators trying to keep their test participation levels above 95%.  It is also represents the work of brave teachers risking sanction and professional consequences for speaking out against damaging policies that distort curricula and classroom choices.  Further, it represents the work of urban education activists who have seen over and over again how annual test data is abused by politicians and policymakers and is used to rank teachers on flawed measures of their performance and to close schools instead of to help and nurture them.

The reasons to support opting out are legion.  Peter Greene provides an excellent breakdown of eight compelling reasons in this postKatie Lapham clearly articulates how test refusal is a form of people power that says “no” to a variety of practices that actively harm schools and children.  Last year, Bronx Principal Jamaal Bowman made an impassioned case for why he supports parents’ rights to refuse the state exams, asking why if the city’s most elite private schools refuse to give exams like these why do we just accept them as necessary for schools full of children in poverty?  New York State Allies for Public Education published this informative response to general misinformation and obfuscation on testing policy put into the state “information toolkit” for administrators.  I urge you to read these pieces carefully and thoughtfully and to seek out others on the subject if you are not already deeply informed on the issues regarding testing.

From where I sit, there are two fundamental reasons why parents should consider opting their children out of the annual examinations.  First, they are a failed policy.  Annual, high stakes, standardized examinations were ushered in as part of the No Child Left Behind legislation under President Bush with a promise that with an ongoing set of achievement data that could be compared against annual improvement targets and consequences for not meeting those targets that schools would improve, especially schools that serve student populations who consistently struggled.  The promise was enticing enough that a bi-partisan coalition signed up, including civil rights organizations convinced that states and cities would be forced to help schools where most students were of color.

That reality never materialized.  While states were flush with data that showed exactly what could have been predicted using other data sources, the “help” that was supposed to flow to struggling schools never measured up to the task while the threat of consequences narrowed more and more student experiences into ongoing test preparation.  Writing during the 2015 debate over the Every Student Succeeds Act, Kevin Welner and William Mathis of University of Colorado at Boulder concluded that test-based accountability as practiced in the NCLB era had demonstrably failed to demonstrate real improvement in the nation’s schools:

We as a nation have devoted enormous amounts of time and money to the focused goal of increasing test scores, and we have almost nothing to show for it.  Just as importantly, there is no evidence that any test score increases represent the broader learning increases that were the true goals of the policy – goals such as critical thinking; the creation of lifelong learners; and more students graduating high school ready for college, career, and civic participation.  While testing advocates proclaim that testing drives student learning, they resist evidence-based explanations for why, after two decades of test-driven accountability, these reforms have yielded such unimpressive results.

Second, test-based accountability is monstrously unjust and racist, subjecting communities to punitive results and “solutions” that aid only a few and which disproportionately take away input into education from parents of color. While No Child Left Behind had already done significant damage to schools and learning, the Obama administration’s policies went much further.  Under the Race to the Top competition, states were incentivized to adopt common standards, to join mass testing consortia, and to use the results of test data to promote school choice and to evaluate teachers.  These are not benign policies.  Value added measures of teacher performance have been and remain highly unreliable ways to evaluate teachers, and while school choice advocates like current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her predecessors in the Obama administration like to portray school choice as empowerment for students and parents, they persistently fail to consider the nature and consequences of those choices.  Urban charter schools rarely enroll identical populations of students as their host districts, and high performing charter schools frequently use shockingly high attrition rates to enhance their overall test scores.  The idea that urban charter schools offer parents “choices” the way that suburban parents enjoy choices, as so often claimed by their proponents, is laughable – it is hardly a choice to be offered a district schools that is chronically underfunded and neglected by policy makers or a charter school that is well resourced thanks to wealthy donors but which routinely drives away its students.  And yet those are the “choices” offered to urban parents of color thanks to testing policies, choices that would cause their white, wealthy peers to oust elected leaders.

And yet, despite these reasons which I believe whole-heartedly, my family will not opt out of the tests this year.

That admission comes as a bit of a shock and leaves me with deeply conflicted feelings, perhaps even trepidation that I will lose respect among people whose advocacy and bravery I greatly respect.  However, I cannot demand that we be an opt out family this year and honor a promise we made to our children.

Last year, as testing time approached, we spoke to our oldest child about the upcoming exams and why we did not like them as a school policy. They were poorly written (they still are).  They took up far too much time just taking them and consumed way too much teaching time preparing for them (they still do).  The state and city would use the test scores to unfairly judge schools and teachers (and they still will).  Based on those reasons, we explained to our child that it was possible to refuse to take the exams and that we would be pleased to make certain the school knew not to administer the exam.  It did not take much to get a “yes” in response to this argument, and for those who think we may have pressured our child, this is a young person who, at the age of six, deduced atheism without any outside influence.  It was important to us that this be a family decision that our child participated in rather than one we insisted upon without listening. Compared to many families who opt out, we were exceedingly lucky.  The school knows what I do for a living, and we were subjected to no active campaign to get us to change our mind, even though New York state policy encourages principals to do just that.

On the other hand, our school really has no active opt out presence, and to my knowledge, our child was the ONLY student in the school to opt out and spent the better part of two different weeks helping out in a Kindergarten class.  Again, better than what happens to many students, but it also made our child stand out.

So when testing time approached again this year, we sat down for another conversation, but the result was very different.  Without being particularly upset or visibly shaken by the previous year’s experience, our child decided to NOT opt out. Part of keeping my word on our child having the right to have a say in this means that we are not an opt out family this year.  Over the weeks, I have managed to tease out my child’s reasons.  Some of it is sheer curiosity about what the other kids will be spending so much time doing.  Some of it is recalling feeling awkward in a classroom full of Kindergarten kids.  Some of it is feeling uneasy being the only student in the grade not taking the test.  Some of it is knowing that the test is part of the teachers’ evaluations and concern not taking it will be harmful – I said that the last fear was not what would happen, but the other reasons?  I don’t really have an argument there, and I strongly suspect there is no small part of this decision that is based upon not wanting to be the only kid opting out again.  I cannot find fault with that.  No matter how much I say that this is a “family decision,” at the end of the day, it is my child who has to enact it, for hours and hours at a time, and that would be a very lonely and potentially ostracizing act.

Of course, honoring my child’s participation in this decision also means recognizing that we are participating, unnecessarily in my opinion, in a policy that is both a failure and which is used to justify a racist status quo.  Just this past week, the New York City Panel on Educational Policy voted to shutter more schools that were supposed to be getting extra assistance and resources as part of a renewal program, assistance and resources that community members in the Bronx say never materialized for JHS 145 Arturo Toscanini.  Those same community members present strong arguments that their school was already slated to be taken over by a charter school before the decision on closing was finalized.  All of this is made far more possible by the abuse of testing data in decision making, testing data our family will contribute to this year.

It is hard to swallow, but perhaps it is also an opportunity for deeper and more incisive self critique.  The state tests may help to fuel failed and racist policies, but they are by no means the only examples of injustice in our school system.  I prepare college students to become teachers, but am I doing enough to teach them to confront the school to prison pipeline?  Am I doing enough to help them drop the pitfalls of “white savior complex” and really learn about their students of color?  Am I working to shine a light on how gentrification brings wealth into neighborhoods and opens trendy night spots but rarely does anything for the public schools?  What level of my own comfort within the education system that I work for and in which my children are enrolled am I willing to put at risk?

How much am I complacent in a much larger system of injustices even if I am able to identify the state tests as especially troubling?  Taking time to answer these questions is more important than ever, and my child’s decision about this year’s tests plays no small role in it.

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Filed under Activism, Arne Duncan, Betsy DeVos, charter schools, Common Core, Data, ESSA, Eva Moskowitz, Funding, Opt Out, politics, racism, schools, Success Academy, Testing, VAMs

Education Policy 2017: Trumpian Levels of Uncertainty

With the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency (I will take a long time to get used to typing that), education policy until at least January 2021 is a giant question mark.  Secretary Clinton’s education policy was fairly easy to predict – she’d attempt to chart a “middle course” between the full embrace of corporate reform by President Obama and the concerns of her union supporters and close confidants like AFT President Randi Weingarten.  She’d have softened the test and punishment aspects of federal education policy while continuing to support standards and testing in general, and she’d try to pivot the charter school debate into more oversight for the sector as a whole and narrowing federal support to co-called “high quality” charter schools.  That’s hardly my ideal, but at least it would have been highly predictable territory and her credentials as someone genuinely interested in policy meant that she’d have approached education with a degree of thoughtfulness that I’d have appreciated.

President Trump?  Not so much.

The only thing guaranteed by Donald Trump is something that I will deeply regret and his own preening self-regard.  Make no mistake:  education policy in the Trump Administration will favor privatization and be hostile to unionized teachers.  The evidence for this is fairly clear in his choice of Indiana Governor Mike Pence as his Vice President.  Governor Pence made education reform a central feature of his administration, and the results have not been especially pretty.  Pence’s administration made a hard charge for additional charter school funding, although he did increase oversight in the sector.  He also pushed to allow more public funds to go to vouchers for private schools, and he “rejected” the Common Core standards, only to have Indiana develop its own that look remarkably like the Common Core standards along with an Indiana specific standardized test that costs far more than the federally backed PARCC and SBAC exams.  Even if Mr. Pence does not have much say in federal education policy (his real passions in government seem far more related to banning abortion and making life hell for LGBTQ people), Trump surrogate Donald Trump Jr. used his July convention speech to trash public education in the United States without regard for facts or nuance, and when Donald Trump spoke on education he focused mostly on bashing the Common Core Standards and emphasizing school choice as curative.

Suffice to say: Education policy in the Trump administration will come down to as much privatization as they can squeeze in, aided by a Congress that is wired to the bone to hate teacher unions and to believe that the free market can do anything.  People who loathe the Common Core standards will be relieved to see an administration that is hostile to them, but they certainly cannot expect any support on keeping public education PUBLIC, and teachers in unionized states can expect Friedrich’s copycat suits to work their way back into the federal courts.

But exactly HOW all of this comes about and exactly how SERIOUS Mr. Trump is about his education policy is a gargantuan question mark.  If you do not believe me, consider the two known names on his list to become Secretary of Education:  The first is Dr. Williamson M. Evers, a research fellow on education issues for the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, a former assistant secretary of education in the George W. Bush administration, and a former holder of education appointments under California Governors Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Dr.  Evers has a libertarian background and his education priorities are neatly aligned with the new administration:  against the Common Core standards and in favor of school choice.  However, it is also undeniable that he would bring genuine policy experience and experience in both state and federal level education policy.  He has a doctorate in political science from Stanford University and has spent decades writing and researching education policy as well as providing advice to governments on that issue.  While I may not agree with all of his priorities, there is no reason to doubt that the Department of Education under his watch would be actually managed.

President-elect Trump’s OTHER top choice to head the Department of Education?  Retired pediatric neurosurgeon and former rival for the Republican nomination Dr. Ben Carson.  I did not just mistype that.  Dr. Carson is obviously an intelligent and talented man in his chosen field – nobody rises to the level that he did in a field like that without having truly prodigious skills.  However, he has absolutely zero qualifications in education, and when he spoke on education issues during the primaries, he tended to say bizarre and frightening things, such as his idea that the Department of Education should cut off federal funds to colleges and universities “guilty” of promoting “extreme bias.”  Dr. Carson is also well known for saying lots of things that make no factual or historic sense, from his assertion that the Great Pyramids of Egypt were built as granaries, to his belief that being gay is a choice, because prison, to his belief that evolution is the literal work of Satan, to his belief that there is no “war on women” but there may be a “war on what’s inside of women” – presumably he meant to reference fetuses, but considering how many organs are inside a human body, it wasn’t precisely clear.

So these are our apparent choices for Secretary of Education during a Trump administration:  One is a libertarian/conservative research fellow with a doctorate in political science, decades of experience in education policy, and who has spent considerable time in both state and federal education policy circles.  One is a retired surgeon with no relevant experience whatsoever, who has a history of saying plainly false or borderline deranged things on a host of topics he doesn’t understand, and who thinks the federal Department of Education should spend its time looking for cases of liberal bias in higher education and then slashing funding.  One will pursue policies that promote school choice and privatization but will also administer the department with an actual understanding of how the system operates.  One will probably operate the department with all of the discipline of Donald Trump campaign rally, complete with bizarre stream of consciousness and counterfactual statements and no discernible direction at all.  One will be a person whose policies and practices we can confront and counter based upon evidence and something resembling logical discourse.  One will essentially dare us to understand a single blessed word that comes out of his mouth.

The kicker?  We really have no idea which one we are going to get.  If Mike Pence has any real input in this administration, we will probably get Dr. Evers.  If Mr. Trump follows his gut and flare for showmanship, we probably get Dr. Carson.  This is education beginning in 2017.  May G-d have mercy on us all.

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Filed under charter schools, politics, schools, standards, Unions

You Bet My Classroom is a “Safe Space”

This week I have the pleasure of meeting the Class of 2020 who just began their 4 year journeys to become teachers.  They join us at a very particular time in our national dialogue, such as it is, on inclusiveness and diversity.  We are four years into a movement demanding awareness of the interaction between African Americans, police, and the rest of society – and calling for substantial change on those fronts.  We are in a Presidential election where one of our historic great political parties has nominated a candidate whose campaign traffics openly in racism and xenophobia and has hired  a champion of forces ridiculing inclusiveness into the campaign.  A great deal of push and pull about what kind of society we are and what kind of discussions about ourselves are even possible is afoot.

And, into that environment, the Dean of Students at the University of Chicago has told incoming students that the institution does not condone “safe spaces” or “trigger warnings.”

The welcome letter from the dean explained to incoming students the intellectual history and tradition at University of Chicago:

Once here you will discover that one of the University of Chicago’s defining characteristics is our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression. This is captured in the University’s faculty report on freedom of expression. Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn, without fear of censorship.  Civility and mutual respect are vital to us all, and freedom of expression does not mean freedom to harass or threaten others.  You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement.  At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.

Without irony at all, I think this is excellent.  As a statement of principles for a liberal education grounded in the best traditions of inquiry and debate, I could hardly imagine better wording, and I would applaud seeing this paragraph widely disseminated.  It speaks to the vital importance of ideas facing scrutiny, previously held assumptions facing challenge, and intellectual growth in an environment predicated on respect and rigor.  It would serve many more institutions to make such statements about the nature of discourse on their campuses and to embrace similar principles.

Which is why what followed that paragraph was distressingly unnecessary and appears rooted in the worst misconceptions about efforts to expand inclusiveness in the Academy.  Having made a clear statement about the need for inquiry and debate that it both challenging and respectful, the Dean wrote:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called “trigger-warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

This paragraph has fostered a fairly wide ranging debate with many coming out both in support and in dismay at the wording.  The letter appears to be responding to a Straw Millennial who embodies the worst stereotypes of his or her generation as fragile and incapable of dealing with anything but affirmation.  Worse, the letter seems to assume that trigger warnings and safe spaces exist to allow students to avoid any material they wish rather than to facilitate their engagement with such material in the classroom and to provide additional venues with clearly defined purposes aligned with been historically marginalized experiences within academia.  I do not object, per se, to the commitment to invited speakers, although one has to wonder the reason for its inclusion.  Yes, there are examples of organized students in the country calling for speaking engagements to be rescinded, but I should not have to remind the University of Chicago that the plural of anecdote is not “data,” nor should the wider phenomenon of students organizing protests around certain speakers be confounded with disinviting those speakers.  Protests, editorials, and teach ins are, in fact, entirely within the intellectual realm the dean outlined in the statement about University of Chicago’s academic tradition and commitment to academic freedom.

The statement did not ban trigger warnings and safe spaces, although with the Dean of Students saying the University does not “support” or “condone” them, one wonders how probationary faculty will find themselves constrained to either use trigger warnings or advise student groups.  However, the statement does invoke literally the worst possible interpretation of those terms as antithetical to an environment of academic freedom and rigorous debate, and that is completely unnecessary.  Offering a trigger warning for extremely challenging content is not inherently about avoiding that content; it is about recognizing that people have experiences that can make that content far more personal and challenging for them than for others.  It is about adequate preparation rather than avoidance.  Consider a professor in a modern film class airing The Accused.  Is it unreasonable to warn students, some of whom may have been sexually assaulted themselves, that the movie contains a gang rape scene?  It is certainly unreasonable to assume that an 18 year old today knows the plot details of a movie from 1988, but it is entirely reasonable to assume that the scene is widely disturbing to all audiences and especially troubling for a class member who has been raped.  Consider a contemporary American history class studying the birth of the second Klan and the Red Summer of 1919.  These are events not often well studied in high school courses, and they fundamentally challenge many students’ perceptions of American history.  Students in the majority may have very little knowledge of how deeply White Supremacy is embedded in our history and of the brutal violence it used to enforce white dominance, and students of color may very well have family history inextricably linked to these events.  Is it out of the norm to show personal care for all students by letting them know how difficult this material will be for them – or does it enable them to more thoroughly engage in the material?

The dean’s letter is written from the assumption that a trigger warning is a tool of avoidance rather than a method of preparation.  That assumption is unnecessary.  And by naming it as something the University does not support, many instructors, especially those without tenure, may end up with less freedom in their teaching.

The statement about safe spaces is equally troubling because, in very real ways, it is not possible for universities to engage in academic inquiry without safe spaces of various kinds. The entire structure of disciplinary study is premised on the acceptance that certain subjects are off topic in various disciplines and that faculty have both authority and a responsibility to shape discourse in the courses along those lines. I can imagine no biology course at any reputable university that would accept Kenneth Hamm enrolling in that class and demanding significant time be given for Biblical creation. Similarly, I cannot imagine that Richard Dawkins would be given free rein in a course on Islam to insist that his increasingly anti-Muslim ideas become the major focus of the class. There are lines between legitimate and illegitimate inquiry within different disciplines, and while all courses should have room for robust discussion and disagreement, they do not have room for fully derailing the content of the class. A Shakespeare course is about the works of William Shakespeare. A course on African American history is about the history of Americans of African descent. This is as true at University of Chicago as it is anywhere else in academia.

Beyond the classroom, however, the Dean’s letter is contradicted by the University of Chicago itself. There are over 350 recognized student organizations at the University of Chicago, and it is without question that large numbers of them meet any reasonable definition of a safe space for students who share interests and experiences and desire a place to meet and interact with like-minded students. Does the Christians on Campus organization have to open up its Bible study meetings to people wanting to debate the existence of God? Do the College Republicans and University of Chicago Democrats get to control the agendas and topics of their own meetings around their shared ideological interests? Does Hillel help Jewish students follow Halachic dietary requirements? Do I even need to ask? Of course they do, because there is no significant question about the validity of those groups to set and determine their own focus.

But University of Chicago also has student organizations that are more likely to be associated with safe space debates within academia. Among recognized student groups, are organizations for women in the sciences, African Americans, and members of the LGBTQ community.   Assuming those groups are allowed to set their agendas, moderate their own meetings, determine what is on and off topic for a discussion, and do everything that all other student groups get to do, then the university absolutely “condones” safe spaces. While many critics of higher education may not approve of giving this privilege to people historically marginalized within academia, it is obvious that University of Chicago does not have a blanket problem with these student organizations, so it is objectively untrue for the Dean of Students to say the institution does not “condone” them. The Dean may be under the impression that “safe spaces” only exist to allow students to “retreat” from disagreement, but that impression does not make it true.

Perhaps the Dean of Students has a completely biased idea of what these terms mean and wanted to discourage incoming students from seeking them out despite the fact that the university obviously embraces many aspects of them. Perhaps the goal is based in alarm at various anecdotes of alleged threats to open discourse – threats that are frequently far more overblown than reality – and a hope to head off any such incidents at University of Chicago. I honestly do not know, but it is fairly obvious that the paragraph was unnecessary for affirming the university’s admirable goals of academic freedom – and that it is actually contradicted by the actual climate at the institution.

In my own classroom, I frankly hope that I am sufficiently embracing the concepts of a safe space for my students. The students I have met this week are taking an introductory course on the history of, purposes, and current issues in American education. Although they have been in school for 13 years, it is typical for most of them to want to be teachers but to have never critically examined the education system they wish to serve. After all, in many ways school is like air for them – always there, extremely important, but rarely thought about very deeply. In this course, my students will, hopefully, gain a better understanding of what John Goodlad meant when he endorsed the vision of teachers practicing “good stewardship” and learn what it means to use equity as a tool to promote opportunity. Doing so will require a genuinely critical and open minded examination of our educational history, both positive advances and legacies of intolerance. We will explore how legislation and litigation have expanded opportunity in our schools, and how legacies like segregation, attempts to wipe out Native American culture, and the horrific abuse of the disabled have played out and continue to play out in our schools. For some of my students these issues will be connected to personal and family experiences. For others, these will be new issues, largely hidden in their previous education.

In order to engage with these issues, my students absolutely need a safe space. They will need to know that their experiences will be considered valid whether those experiences are “typical” or not. They will need to know that they will have supportive and empathetic classmates and instructors as they think about new ideas that may thoroughly challenge their worldviews or which may recall painful family and personal histories. They will need to know that they can push themselves, and, more importantly, that they make mistakes without incurring unbearable cost.  Personal and intellectual growth can occur in an educational environment that takes no care for the well being of its students, but it is more likely to happen in spite of that environment rather than because of it.  Absent the qualities mentioned above, learners far too often retreat to well known pathways for “success” – seeking out and repeating approved of answers whether they believe in them or not.  Worse, dominant mythologies that discount the full spectrum of human experience can remain entirely unchallenged.

This is entirely compatible with being “engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement,” and it is compatible with students finding themselves both challenged and discomfited.  I would argue that within the classroom, safe space attributes are actually vital to and enable the kind of discourse valued at University of Chicago.  I will certainly strive to enact them.

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Filed under classrooms, schools, Social Justice, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching

Chris Christie – Reverse Robin Hood

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has been an abject disaster for his state’s students, teachers, and schools.  Since assuming office in 2010, the self acclaimed teller of “like it is” has broken promise after promise, callously tossed the Garden State’s most vulnerable children into barely regulated experiments, and heaped insult after insult upon the state’s teachers.  A good way to approach almost any education proposal from Chris Christie is to simply assume that it will cause far more harm than good and then try to gauge just how far along the harmful spectrum it will actually be.

Chris Christie ran for Governor, promising teachers that he would not touch a dime of their pensions, but one of his first acts was to ram through a pension reform plan that he subsequently failed to fund – even while handing management of the fund over to Wall Street firms who raised annual fees from $140 million a year to $600 million a year and then planned to give $100 million of the fund to a firm started by a major donor to the Republican Governors’ Association right around the time the RGA was spending almost 2 million helping Christie get reelected.  Governor Christie’s refusal to meet funding obligations is not restricted to the state pension fund.  Governor Christie cut nearly $1 billion from the state school aid budget when he entered office, and that shortfall has never been made up for regardless of the district.  In fact, as Chris Christie was announcing his candidacy for the President of the United States, his own Department of Education reported that the state budget was roughly a billion dollars short of the fair funding formula used to determine school aid.

Chris Christie is more than happy to unleash chaos and mismanagement on poor children of color in New Jersey just so long as his favorite charter school operators stand to benefit.  With the aid of then Newark Mayor (now Senator) Cory Booker, the disastrous “One Newark” plan was foisted onto the state’s largest district  overseen by the incompetent and out of touch Cami Anderson – who was so standoffish and incapable of dealing with criticism that she even ignored lawmakers’ requests for meetings for an entire year.  Anderson was finally ousted but replaced by former state commissioner Chris Cerf who is cut of almost entirely similar cloth but who knows how to smile in public better.  Chris Christie pivots on other education issues with big public pronouncements that look like 180 degree changes – but which amount to almost nothing of substance.  While the governor likes to brag that he is “changing” the Common Core Standards in response to criticisms, his department of education continues its slow march towards making the enormously flawed PARCC assessment a graduation requirement in the Garden State.

And, of course, Chris Christie’s famous temper has led him to lash out in the press and directly in the faces of constituents over and over again. This is a man who claimed teachers used students as “drug mules” for a civics lesson.  This is a man who whined that the teacher union said he hated children for a simple billboard that said nothing of the sort:

NJEA billboard 2011

This is a man who has screamed at multiple teachers in public:

Christie Yells Again

Governor Chris Christie, Raising Teachers’ Public Esteem Again

And who has disparaged teachers’ work as not full time.

Given this history, it should give readers some pause that Governor Christie’s address on school funding in Hillsborough on June 21st was a new low even by his standards.  Under this “plan” the city of Newark, whose median household income is $34,012 a year, where 29.9% of the population lives below the federal poverty line, and where the median value of an owner occupied home is $229,600, would see its annual school aid drop by 69%.  Meanwhile, Summit, a community whose median household income is $121,509, where 5% of the population lives below the poverty line, and where the median value of an owner occupied home is $774,800, would see its annual school aid go up by 1506%.  The Governor would accomplish this by completely eliminating the school fair funding formula and then distributing $6,599 in per pupil aid to every school district in the state regardless of the community’s poverty or property value characteristics.  When Governor Christie watches “Robin Hood” he must see the Sheriff of Nottingham as nothing more than a misunderstood public servant making certain no ne’er-do-well layabouts get any of Prince John’s precious taxes:

sheriff-stealing

Getting every last cent out of the lazy good-for-nothings

A very brief background is in order:  New Jersey’s fair funding plan is actually one of the bright spots for equity in the Garden State’s education system.  New Jersey’s Abbott Districts are the result of decades of legislation and litigation, and the designation of an Abbott District takes into account matters such as educational adequacy, concentration of poverty, and the use of additional funding as a remedy.  The result of this has been New Jersey’s fair funding plan (the very one that Governor Christie has consistently underfunded) which directs substantial amounts of state aid to the most disadvantaged school districts throughout New Jersey.  Currently, there are 31 such districts in the state, and their current foundational aid from the state reflects the provisions of the School Funding Reform Act of 2008.  As recently as 2012, the State Supreme Court ordered the state to fully fund the SFRA, noting that consistent underfunding of the aid formula is “a real substantial and consequential blow” to students’ rights to a “thorough and efficient education.”

Governor Christie is apparently sick and tired of that.

In his speech, he pointed out that of the $9.1 billion spent annually on school aid, 58% of it goes to the Abbott Districts.  He decried this as “absurd” and “unfair.”  He claimed that school results from those districts prove that the Supreme Court was wrong to conclude that funding matters in urban education.  He provided cherry picked statistics on government spending in a few districts as “proof” that those communities can make up their school spending by trimming waste.  He blamed all of this for holding property taxes at high levels across the state.  He then proposed taking the entire $9.1 billion pot of (still inadequately funded) school aid and dividing it equally among every student in the Garden State:

If we were to take the amount of aid we send directly to the school districts today (in excess of $9.1 billion) and send it equally to every K-12 student in New Jersey, each student would receive $6,599 from the State of New Jersey and its taxpayers.  Every child has potential.  Every child has goals.  Every child has dreams.  No child’s dreams are less worthy than any others.  No child deserves less funding from the state’s taxpayers.  That goal must be reached, especially after watching the last 30 years of failed governmental engineering which has failed families in the 31 SDA districts and taxpayers all across New Jersey.

Not only does the Governor’s proposal literally take foundational aid that is mandated by law and litigation to go to the state’s poorest communities and direct it back to communities that are vastly wealthier, it also uses that redirection to promise middle class, upper middle class, and rich communities property tax relief – a campaign promise the Governor has not managed to manifest in his six years office:

In Margate, they would receive 428% more in aid.  In Fairlawn, 815% more in aid. In that town, when combined with our 2% property tax cap, this new aid would result in average drop in their school property tax of over 2,200 per household.  In Teaneck, 389% more in aid and an average drop in property taxes of nearly $1,600.  In Wood-Ridge, an 801% increase in aid and a drop in property taxes of over $1,800.  How about South Jersey?  In Cherry Hill, an increase in aid of 411% and a drop in property taxes of over $1,700.  In Haddonfield, an increase in aid of 1705% and a drop in property taxes of nearly $3,600.

The pattern is repeated everywhere.  South Orange aid up 912%, taxes down over $3,700. In Readington Township, aid up 410%, taxes down nearly $2,000. In Robbinsville, aid up 666%, taxes down over $2,600.  In Freehold Township, aid up 153%, taxes down over $1,500. In Chatham Township, aid up 1271%, taxes down $3,800.  In Wayne, aid up 1181%, taxes down over $2,100.  All over the state, we slay the dragon of property taxes by implementing the Fairness Formula.  For the first time in anyone’s memory, property taxes plummeting not rising.  And all through valuing each child and their hopes, dreams and potential the same.

It takes a special kind of chutzpah to underfund the state aid formula for your entire tenure as governor, to unleash chaos and mismanagement on the largest Abbott Districts that are under state control and whose problems are entire on your head, to thoroughly fail to deliver on property tax relief in the state as a whole, and then to turn around to your constituents burdened with high taxes and blame it on failures of schools in 31 communities, some of which are among the poorest and most distressed in the entire country.  Newark families whose schools have had dangerous lead levels in them since at least 2010?  We’re cutting your aid almost 70% so we can give it to families that earn 400% of your income and give them a property tax cut to boot!  Go find the money to make up for that in the couch cushions at city hall.

At least we now know that Governor Christie’s vacant stare behind Donald Trump in March wasn’t because he was being taken hostage – it was because he was trying to think of the most vile and damaging thing he could do to New Jersey’s most vulnerable children.

Let’s be clear:  The SFRA does not send vastly more aid to the Abbott Districts because it isn’t “valuing each child and their hopes, dreams and potential the same.”  That is absurd and offensive.  It does so because the intent is for the funding to be a remedy in recognition that it does not cost the same to educate each individual child and that certain districts with specific characteristics have expenses that other districts do not.  A school that needs additional security measures because children have to travel through high crime areas on their way to school has higher per pupil costs than one that does not. A school that has a high percentage of English Language Learners who need specialized instruction has higher per pupil costs than one that does not.  A school that has a high percentage of students with high need Individualized Education Plans has higher per pupil costs than one that does not.  A school that has special instructional programs for students whose families lack material and supplemental resources such as books and private tutoring has higher per pupil costs than one that does not.  A school that provides wrap around services such as social workers and health services has higher per pupil costs than one that does.  This is because, despite the governor’s willful misrepresentation of the issue, the SFRA is designed to account for equity so that students who begin their education with vastly less than wealthier peers have a fair shot.

Can everyone enjoy this?

The Difference Between Equality and Equity

Governor Christie further tried to obfuscate the issue by claiming that the Abbott District schools could do far better with much less state aid because the only schools that he ever speaks highly of, urban, no excuses, charter schools have higher graduation rates and test scores with fewer per pupil expenditures.  This is misleading on several front.  First, some charter school costs are actually paid for by their host districts, so the charter schools cannot properly claim they get less money when the host district carries what would normally be part of their per pupil costs.  Look at the third question on this page: New Jersey requires host districts to pay for the transportation of charter school students.  Second, we know full well that the high flying, test score achieving, charter schools beloved by Governor Christie simply do not have the same students as their district hosts, enrolling fewer students who are poor and fewer students with high need disabilities.  Further, their attrition rates are so high (as high as 60% for African American boys attending North Star Academy) that they entirely depend upon district schools to take back the students they refuse to accommodate.  Those Abbott District public schools that Governor Christie wants to function on less than half of their current state aid?  Their EXISTENCE enables his favorite charter schools to suspend the dickens out of their students until the ones they don’t want leave.

Finally, while these charter schools might spend less per pupil than some of their host districts, how they spend less is instructive. For example, in Newark, the public school district as a whole spends $3,963 per pupil more on “student services” than the charter sector in Newark. Such services include social work, attendance support, health, guidance, special education services, etc. and since NPS enrolls far more special education students – and vastly more high cost special education students – than Newark charters, this is entirely predictable and proper.  Meanwhile, although Newark’s charters spend significantly less on student services, they do manage to spend far more than NPS on administrative costs, especially administrative salaries – $2,460 per pupil compared to NPS’ $1,362 per pupil.

So what lessons can New Jersey most impoverished school communities learn from Governor Christie’s favorite schools in the state about “doing more with less”?  Drive away half of your students via massive suspension, don’t spend money on things like services that your most needy students require, and double your spending on administrative salaries?  Of course, if every school followed that model, we’d have no place for all of the kids that we refuse to educate.  Maybe Delaware will take them.

Governor Christie plans to spend the remainder of his term – at least when he isn’t playing chief errand boy for “Cheeto Jesus” – pursuing this agenda with the apparent hopes that he can entice New Jersey’s wealthy suburbanites to literally throw the state’s poorest children under the school bus.   He’s even given it hashtags: #FairnessFormula and #EquityforNJFamilies (which is deranged since this is the OPPOSITE of equity).  The good news is that New Jersey is not Kansas, and Democratic lawmakers do not sound willing to accommodate the Governor’s last ditch efforts to utterly destroy urban schools for the sake of finally keeping his broken promises on property taxes.

But just let this be known as exactly what Governor Chris Christie stands for.

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Filed under charter schools, Chris Christie, Corruption, Cory Booker, Funding, Newark, One Newark, PARCC, politics, schools, Social Justice

How to Appreciate Teachers

It is the national PTA Teacher Appreciation Week 2016, and there are a number of ideas hosted on the PTA’s website for how you can #thankateacher.  If you are a teacher, you can start a GoFundMe campaign for classroom supplies or, if you are a parent, to personally thank your children’s teachers. The PTA offers a toolkit so you can plan events to honor teachers in your schools as part of a celebration that has taken place in the first week of May since 1984.

(The National Alliance for “Public” Charter Schools also decided to schedule their “National Charter Schools Week” for the same week this year in what I am sure was not a deliberate effort to steal some free publicity at all.)

Teacher Appreciation Week is, of course, a lovely idea, and when it was launched in 1984, I doubt any of its founders could envision the issues facing teachers and teaching today.  Teachers across the country are getting cards, flowers, baked good, and some very well deserved nachesHistorically, teachers always have been highly motivated by the affective rewards of teaching – seeing children learn, gaining affirmation from their successes, building relationships with children and colleagues – but who can say no a nicely concentrated dose of positivity?

Gift baskets and flowers, however, don’t address the other 175 days of the school year, and those remain, as they have for some time now, unnecessarily stressful and subject to policies and incentives that diminish teachers’ autonomy and satisfaction in their work.  Teachers remain with policies that reduce their ability to plan their own classrooms, subjected to evaluations based upon invalid statistical methods using standardized test scores, and blamed for everything from being lazy to putting the future of the nation in jeopardy.  No wonder that enrollments in teacher preparation programs have fallen steeply from a high of over 700,000 in 2009 to barely above 450,000 in 2014 – high school students have ears and eyes, after all.  If we keep appreciating teachers like this, we may not have very many of them left to appreciate.

How should we really appreciate our teachers all year long?  A few suggestions:

Actually Treat Teachers as Professionals.  Education reform has an unfortunate tendency to treat teachers as if they are hopelessly outdated, the equivalent of a quill pen and parchment in the digital age.  In that view, teachers need a constant stream of prescriptive measures to make certain that they don’t bungle the job: new standards, scripted curricula, computer delivered instruction, constant outside assessment.  I know very few teachers who do not welcome the opportunity to try and use new tools that could improve their teaching, but tools are no substitute for actual professionals who use them skillfully – or who evaluate them and decide to seek better ones.  In many respects, that’s an operable definition of professional: someone who knows her or his job, what is necessary to accomplish it skillfully, and is trusted to construct practice effectively out of a variety of available resources in order to meet local needs.

For more and more teachers that sense of agency and professional practice is fading in a mass of expectations and initiatives that have given them little participation and voice.  In the workplace survey conducted by the the Badass Teachers Association with the AFT, 40% of respondents said that lack of say in decision making was a source of stress, and a whopping 71% of respondents cited new initiatives without proper training and development as sources of stress. 35% were stressed by a mandated curriculum, 32% by standardized testing, and 27% by data gathering expectations. A staggering 73% of respondents said they were often stressed on the job, and those teachers were less likely to have actual decision making capacity or trust their administrators to support them.  79% of teachers do not believe that elected officials treat them with respect, and 77% do not believe that the media treats them with respect.

The opposite of this is not showing up with flowers once a year and crowd sourcing classroom supplies. What teachers need is a near 180 degree turn in the way policy and policymakers treat them. If teachers are professionals, then they need to be welcomed into policy discussions and their recommendations, and reservations, taken seriously.  Further, teachers need to be allowed sufficient autonomy to both construct curricula that match their specific students and circumstances and to make necessary adjustments based upon what happens during the school year.  Such professional decision making is nearly impossible in an environment that insists upon scripted lessons and that places enormous power in the hands of one time snap shot assessments that become ends unto themselves. Professional evaluation of teachers can incorporate a wide range of materials that actually reflect the meaningful work teachers do with students embedded within a system predicated on growth and support rather than upon measurement and punishment.  Imagine schools where teachers work collaboratively on how to best approach the needs of students and where administrators and policy makers endeavor to get them the tools and resources they need to implement those plans.  We can get there, but only with a  genuine sea change in our priorities and how we view teachers.

Give Teachers the Time and Resources to Do Their Jobs: Attitude and involvement are steps in the right direction, but without the time and resources needed to do their jobs well and to continuously grow within their teaching, it will have little meaning.  Grappling with new ideas and different ways of understanding subjects and pedagogy takes significant time within a community of other professionals who are given meaningful chances to grow.  It would be unthinkable in other professions for outsiders with no specific expertise in the field to sweep in and tell practitioners to change and change quickly, yet nearly every major initiative in school reform since No Child Left Behind has done exactly that, and we have almost nothing positive to show for it.  It is time to spend less time measuring teaching and more time enabling it. How might we do this?

  • Reducing class sizes: Research is pretty clear on this — smaller class sizes improve academic outcomes for students and increase student engagement overall, and they improve long term outcomes for students and retention of teachers.
  • Time for teacher collaboration: We’ve known this for ages. Teachers and students benefit when teachers are able to effectively collaborate with each other, and in order to do that, they need space and time.  While teachers are often willing to give some of their existing time for this, it is also a systemic responsibility that has to be enabled by policy and administration.
  • Fully fund mandates: Lawmakers love giving teachers responsibilities.  They usually fail to love funding those responsibilities.  Consider the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.  When it was signed into law by President Ford, Congress promised to fund 40% of the costs.  Congress has never done better than 20% in 41 years.
  • Embed needed social services for our most needy children: Children who come from highly stressed communities need far greater resources than their peers in more affluent communities, and one of the best ways to address this is to embed high quality services within their schools. Early access to nutrition, health providers, social workers, and after school support programs all have positive short and long term benefits for high needs children, and they help teachers focus on a fuller education for their students.  Certainly these services are a far better investment of resources than continuing to fund the school to prison pipeline through increasingly criminalizing school discipline.
  • Repair our schools: The federal government estimates that nearly half of our nation’s schools need repairs and modernization to  the amount of $197 billion.  This number does not capture the truly decrepit situation in some of our nation’s schools, however. Public schools in Detroit, for example, have numerous cases of buildings falling apart with mold, water damage, and even mushrooms growing from the walls. It is appalling that we can expect anyone to teach or to learn in such conditions.

The teachers that I know want to do their jobs, and they want to do their jobs well.  If we truly appreciated them we would enable that work with the time and resources necessary for them to truly do it.

Fund all of this: That might sound obvious, but it is something that has apparently escaped the federal government and our nation’s governors.  Despite the economic recovery, governors across the country from both parties still have not restored education spending to pre-2008 levels and some are still cutting.  New York remains billions of dollars annually below agreed upon funding levels from nearly a decade ago (although it did spend almost 2 million dollars arguing in court that it shouldn’t have to), and Governor Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly insisted that the money doesn’t matter.

Bollocks.  Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers explains:

We are being led down a destructive road to stupid – by arrogant , intellectually bankrupt, philosophically inconsistent, empirically invalid and often downright dumb ideas being swallowed whole and parroted by an increasingly inept media – all, in the end creating a massive ed reform haboob distracting us from the relatively straightforward needs of our public schools.

Many of the issues plaguing our current public education system require mundane, logical solutions – or at least first steps.

Money matters. Having more helps and yes, having less hurts, especially when those who need the most get the least.

Equitable and adequate funding are prerequisite conditions either for an improved status-quo public education system OR for a structurally reformed one.

It’s just that simple.

Everything we need to see costs more money – sometimes a lot more money – and it is well past time that we stop simply saying that teachers are “heroes” and step up as a society to fund what is necessary for them to do their jobs to the best of their ability.

Stop attacking teachers’ professionalism and professional unions: Another front in today’s education reform is to speak with one mouth about how important teachers are and how it is vital to make certain that every child has a “highly effective” teacher, and then to speak with another mouth attacking the very notion of teachers as lifelong professionals. Education reform seems far more interested in promoting “market disruption” in teacher preparation rather than strengthening actual professional education and providing career long, meaningful, professional development.

Across the country, there is a genuine war being waged with dark money against teachers’ workplace rights.  Hoping to build off of the initial – and now thankfully reversed – success of the Vergara lawsuit in California, former news anchor Campbell Brown has taken a pile of undisclosed money to fund similar efforts across the country for the purpose of turning all teachers into at will employees.  The fact that most of her arguments do not stand up to any kind of scrutiny does not appear to matter to her backers who continue to funnel money into her efforts. Worse, those same backers appear entirely disinterested in how incredibly complicated teachers’ workplaces are and how many competing interests intersect in their work – which Peter Greene very cogently explained is one of the most important reasons for the due process protections of tenure:

A private employee serves one master — the company.

A public school teacher serves many “bosses”. And on any given day, many of those bosses will fight for ascendency. A teacher cannot serve all of those interests — and yet that is the teacher’s mandate. Tenure is meant to shield the teacher from the political fallout of these battles:  to give the teacher the freedom to balance all these interests as she sees best.

I would add to this that a truly professional teacher must often be a thorn in the side of administration — advocating for the children in her classroom even if it means telling an administrator that he is wrong. But the attack on teachers personally and professionally really has very little to do with any realistic understanding of what it means to teach and to be a teacher.  It looks very much more like a concerted effort to turn teaching into a job that an idealistic person may do for a few years in her 20s before being replaced with a fresh, newly idealistic, candidate who will teach for a few years using a scripted curriculum and then move on as well. If we truly appreciate teachers, we need to embrace making their professional education improve through thoughtful and substantive preparation for a lifelong career, and we need to defend the hard won protections in the workplace that make truly professional teaching possible.  Rejecting efforts to turn them into lightly trained and easily replaced cogs is absolutely essential.

So it is Teacher Appreciation Week.  The teachers in your community surely thank you for the ways you made them smile the past five school days.  They will also truly thank you for appreciating them the rest of the school year if you truly recognize their work and  genuinely support what makes that work possible.

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Filed under classrooms, Common Core, Data, ESSA, Funding, Media, NCLB, politics, schools, Social Justice, standards, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching, Testing, Unions, VAMs

Can Teachers Talk About Opt Out?

New York City teachers Jia Lee, Lauren Cohen, and Kristin Taylor risked disciplinary action recently to speak with NBC news about their opposition to the state testing system and their support of the Opt Out movement.

bats

This was no small act on their part because the NYC DOE has sent multiple signals that it does not tolerate classroom teachers speaking against the tests which have been occupying schools’ time and attention this month.  District 15 Superintendent Anita Skop stated her belief that any teacher encouraging opt outs was engaging in political speech and that such acts were not permissible for teachers speaking as teachers. A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said that teachers are free to speak as private citizens but not to speak as “representatives of the department,” and New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina said “I don’t think that the teachers’ putting themselves in the middle of it is a good idea.”  None of these figures have specified what possible consequences could befall teachers for speaking in favor of opt out and against the state standardized tests – but the ambiguous statements alone are sufficient to deter many city teachers from speaking their mind.  Add in the history of “gag orders” that prevent teachers from discussing the contents of the examinations – even as professionals seeking to improve tests after they have been used – and speaking to the media as these teachers did is an act of exceptional bravery.

Walking the line between teacher and “private citizen” is exceptionally ambiguous.  Ms. Lee, Ms. Cohen, and Ms. Taylor were all identified as New York City teachers by the reporter in the story, but does that automatically make them not private citizens?  Most members of our society are not required to hide their professions when speaking on political matters within the public sphere, and in many communities, teachers’ identities are well known to parents, making the distinction between their professional and private selves far less distinct.  Furthermore, as professionals in a school system governed by different political systems, teachers have legitimate observations and, yes, criticism to make about policies that impact their work and, therefore, their students.  Simply saying teachers cannot be “political” as teachers is plainly too simplistic.

However, this cannot be only a matter of saying teachers have free speech rights in their role as teachers.  There are legal and legitimate limitations on what teachers can say. For example, federal law protects the privacy of students’ academic records and while a teacher can discuss a child’s performance with both parents and involved professionals in pursuit of helping that child, the law prevents that same teacher from discussing the child’s academic record outside of that context.  Teachers also possess academic freedom within the classroom, but that is not well defined, subject to significant limitations and considerations of the interests of school boards, communities, parents, and children.  Generally, teachers have to balance their rights with their significant responsibilities within the classroom, including their responsibility to the adopted curriculum in a district.

Outside of the classroom, teachers also have limits on what they can say and for good reasons.  The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against a teacher who claimed her free speech rights were violated when she was fired for keeping a public blog full of insults about students and parents in her school.  This is fundamentally different than writing about politics or using a public forum like letters to the editor to speak about “matters of public concern” as a citizen — her speech gave parents legitimate reasons to demand that she not teach their children.  The Washington branch of the ACLU maintains a page with various examples of speech scenarios in which a teacher may or may not be protected from job consequences, and the examples demonstrate that teachers often have additional constraints on their speech related to their ability to perform their responsibilities.  On the other hand, purely political speech, even related to education issues, can be strongly protected outside of the classroom.

Consider the case of Boston long term substitute teacher Jeffrey Herman who testified at a Boston City Council meeting against the expense of maintaining a Junior ROTC program in the city and advocating what he believed was a better use of those funds – and who was screamed at by the head of Boston English High School and essentially blacklisted from working there.  While that case was settled with no admission of wrongdoing by the city, the implication is clear enough:  Mr. Herman was entirely within his rights to speak in the public sphere on a matter of public concern.  A staff attorney for the ACLU made this obvious:  “Teachers are entitled to political opinions just like everyone else…We need them to feel free to share those opinions with public and elected officials, outside the school, without fear of losing their jobs for doing so. Jeff Herman had a right to speak out at City Hall about Boston spending over a million dollars on JROTC…”

This would seem to neatly point towards a general right for teachers to speak critically of standardized testing and in favor of opt out as long as they do not suggest that they are speaking for district and school administrations in the process.  While teachers are obligated to teach the adopted curriculum of the school and to participate in duties such as test administration, critiques of both the curriculum and testing are matters of public concern.  Administrators can probably restrict teachers from proactively soliciting opt outs on the school grounds, but they would be beyond bounds to restrict teachers from speaking elsewhere – even if their audience knows that they are teachers. Further, if asked by parents about the tests, it is very plausible that teachers have the right to offer an informed and critical perspective. Grumbling from Tweed Courthouse notwithstanding, Ms. Lee, Ms. Cohen, and Ms Taylor should be secure in their advocacy and their speaking with reporters.

But perhaps this should not merely be a matter of whether or not teachers disciplined for speaking against testing could win a civil rights suit.  Perhaps this needs to be framed as a matter of professionalism and professional judgement because while teachers have responsibilities and rights in the performance of their work, they also have professional obligations and norms that define what it means to be a teacher.  Among those is the need to speak up when children are being ill served or harmed by what is going on within school.  John Goodlad referred to practicing “good moral stewardship of schools” and this principle is as important to teaching as “do no harm” is for medicine or being a zealous advocate is for law.  Teachers are given an awesome and sacred trust – the intellectual, social, and emotional well being and growth of other people’s children.  Speaking out when that trust is in jeopardy is not simply a question of Constitutional rights.  It is a moral obligation.

Do teachers have good reason for concern about how these tests impact their stewardship?   New York City teacher Katie Lapham certainly makes a compelling case:

The reading passages were excerpts and articles from authentic texts (magazines and books).  Pearson, the NYSED or Questar did a poor job of selecting and contextualizing the excerpts in the student test booklets.  How many students actually read the one-to-two sentence summaries that appeared at the beginning of the stories? One excerpt in particular contained numerous characters and settings and no clear story focus.  The vocabulary in the non-fiction passages was very technical and specific to topics largely unfamiliar to the average third grader.  In other words, the passages were not meaningful. Many students could not connect the text-to-self nor could they tap into prior knowledge to facilitate comprehension.

The questions were confusing.  They were so sophisticated that it appeared incongruous to me to watch a third grader wiggle her tooth while simultaneously struggle to answer high school-level questions. How does one paragraph relate to another?, for example. Unfortunately, I can’t disclose more.  The multiple-choice answer choices were tricky, too. Students had to figure out the best answer among four answer choices, one of which was perfectly reasonable but not the best answer.

NYSED claims they removed time limits from the test in order to remove performance pressure from very young children, but there are documented cases of this actually matter the exams worse for students.  A Brooklyn teacher blogging anonymously notes:

This afternoon I saw one of my former students still working on her ELA test at 2:45 pm. Her face was pained and she looked exhausted. She had worked on her test until dismissal for the first two days of testing as well. 18 hours. She’s 9.

This is a student who is far above grade level in reading, writing and every measurable area imaginable. She definitely got a 3 or 4 on this test. She is a hard worker and powers through challenges with quiet strength and determination. She is not “coddled.” She is sweet, brilliant and creative and as far as I know she has always loved school. She is also shy and a perfectionist.

After 18 hours of testing over 3 days, she emerged from the classroom in a daze. I asked her if she was ok, and offered her a hug. She actually fell into my arms and burst into tears. I tried to cheer her up but my heart was breaking. She asked if she could draw for a while in my room to calm down and then cried over her drawing for the next 20 minutes.

New York City education advocate Leonie Haimson reported on numerous items of test content that she was able to glean from various sources.  They included a sixth grade test including a 17th century poem often studied in college, obscure vocabulary in the 8th grade exam, disturbing product placements within reading passages, and missing prep pages without adequate instructions on how to assist students.

Beyond these specific examples, teachers can be rightly concerned about the entire environment within which these exams take place.  Since No Child Left Behind was passed in 2001, testing and test preparation have become more and more ends unto themselves instead of quiet background monitoring of the school system.  We have spent more than a decade now in a policy cycle based upon “test-label-punish” without considering how to give schools teaching our most vulnerable students the resources and supports needed to do right by those children, their families, and communities.  And we have very, very little to show for it except a narrowing curriculum in communities across the country and a crushing increase of academic work at younger and younger ages despite the abject harm it inflicts upon children who need play to learn and to be healthy.  Practicing “good stewardship” as a professional teacher clearly embraces openly objecting to these harmful practices.

Ms. Lee told NBC, ““Parents should definitely opt out. Refuse. Boycott these tests because change will not happen with compliance.”  She went on to call herself a “conscientious objector.”

She is also a true professional, guarding the well being of the children entrusted to her.

 

 

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Filed under classrooms, NCLB, Opt Out, politics, schools, Social Justice, standards, teacher professsionalism, Testing

No, You Cannot Test My Child

Dear Local Education Authority (LEA), State Education Authority (SEA), and Federal Education Bureaucrat (FEB?),

We are rapidly approaching the annual state mandated testing ritual in public school, and it has become evident that all of you are a little nervous about that.  I know this because you keep sending letters to each other about how important it is that every LEA test 95% of all children in every school and that every SEA make certain that LEAs know just how important this is.  Last Fall, FEB Ann Whalen sent a dozen SEAs letters explaining to them just how important it is that they meet their testing requirements and suggesting a range of measures, both persuasive and punitive, if LEAs did not make their testing goals.  This was followed by another letter to all states essentially reiterating the point. SEAs have been busy trying to impress upon their LEAs how seriously they take the federal requirement to test 95% of all students in all schools although with different approaches.  In Connecticut, state officials have more or less threatened LEAs, while New York, home of the largest test refusal movement in the country, has tried to woo back refusing parents to the wonderful world of testing with a series of concessions on the use of tests for teacher assessment and the timed nature of the tests and a nifty “tool kit” to explain how awesome testing can be.

So, okay, I get it: A lot of you SEAs have been nervous about what the FEBs are saying, and you are pressuring your LEAs to use both honey and vinegar to convince parents to just up and let their kids be tested already.

cat on leash

You still can’t test my kid.

I know that you are supposed to try to convince me, otherwise, and it is probably too much to ask you to save yourself the time.  However, if you do feel the need to persuade me that the testing ritual is excellent and worthwhile, you should know that I have heard most of your arguments, and, frankly, you need new ones.

To begin with, I am actually aware that my children will take tests during their lives, and it is not my intention to keep them from ever experiencing a standardized test.  The thing is that most of those tests will actually serve some purpose for their lives if and when they take them.  While standardized test measures are of questionable quality for college, graduate school, or professional school admission, where they are required to pursue those goals, my children will take them at the appropriate time.  You should also know that I expect my children to take teacher made tests throughout their education.  Tests and other assessments are part of an education, and professional teachers know how to use all kinds of tools to see how well their students are learning.

But when tests used for a state accountability system take nine hours – 6 hours LONGER than the LSAT and and an hour and half longer than the MCAT – and when the tests have to be taken every.single.year – something is seriously out of whack.  Of course, the tests themselves are not the only issue.  Because of the incentives attached to these tests, districts and schools across the country spend far more time preparing for and practicing test taking that any scheme for school accountability can justify.  Robert Pondiscio, Vice President of External Affairs for the pro-education reform Thomas B. Fordham Institute, gets this and has urged federal officials to back off the warped incentive systems that make standardized tests end unto themselves.  He’s argued that as long as punishing consequences for schools and teachers are attached to testing, we will have this problem.  So far, he hasn’t been listened to much.

So I expect that my children will taken standardized tests – possibly many over the course of their lives.  But when a state accountability test consumes so much time and is attached to stakes that warp my children’s education, well, the cart is definitely in front of the horse.

cart_before_horse

Further, I already know that it is a matter of faith at the Federal DOE that without testing we can never look a second grader in the eye and tell her ‘You’re on track, you’re going to be able to go to a good college, or you’re not.’ Frankly, if that is your goal for a conversation with a 7 year old child, then I’d kindly ask you to never visit a school, thanks, but beyond that, it remains a horrible failure of imagination to think that a state accountability test is our best and essential way to check whether or not an individual child is learning.  If you really want to increase the ability of parents to understand how well their children are doing, there are tools with far greater sophistication that teachers could actually use in their classrooms than an accountability test given in April whose results don’t come back until the next school year is well underway.  In fact, considering the amount of time in the school year spent scrambling to prepare for and to administer state tests, it is entirely counter-intuitive to think these tests are really good for telling me how my children are doing.  And if we need to increase parental engagement with their children’s education in all of our communities, what makes more sense?  Investing in strategies and programs that are proven to help parents and guardians connect with school? Or a two page score report that doesn’t include the slightest hint of what kind of test questions the test taker got wrong or how to learn from them?

The question was rhetorical, by the way.

tests-human-resources-cartoon-400px

I also understand that you want me to know that without a system of annual standardized testing with full participation then there will be no accountability for my local schools and they will be free to ignore the needs of minority children at will.  This is certainly an argument that has been made with vigor, and it is one our friends the FEBs have insisted is the primary reason for testing every child in every year.  I will admit there is something to this argument – not because annual testing has been a great force for making education for all students equitable.  Fifteen years in and test-based accountability has been pretty wretched at that goal.  It is, however, true that our school system has nowhere near the distribution of opportunity that would make the promise of a democratic school system a reality.

But test-based accountability has the whole thing reversed.  We have a test-based “achievement gap” which reflects the opportunity gap that exists across communities all over the country.  To suggest that the test measured gaps result in the economic gaps ignores every bit of nuance and complexity that we know about both poverty’s impacts and how segregation by income concentrates large percentages of children from poor households into specific neighborhoods.  The connection between poverty and tested results is so tight that Dr. Christopher Tienken and colleagues of Seton Hall University were able to use census data to accurately predict student proficiency scores on state tests in different communities.  State accountability testing is telling us very little that we do not already know.

On the other hand, those same tests have been giving ammunition to policies that insist upon educational “improvement” without focusing upon the resources necessary to work successfully with high need students: smaller class sizes, wrap around services, teacher retention policies, facility improvements, extended programs and after school supervision – none of it is free and very little of it has been offered to schools and districts under threat because of lagging test scores.  Instead of genuine investment in their schools and communities, these neighborhoods are offered the “creative disruption” of school privatization that saps resources from fully public schools without accountability – all justified by test scores.  No wonder then that there is a small but significant and growing conversation among civil rights activists about whether or not annual testing is the tool it was presented to be in NCLB.

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My family does understand the pressure you are under, LEA.  The SEA, under a lot of heat from the FEBs, has been issuing dire warnings if 95% of all students are not tested.  Most of that is just hot air, however, and as long as you do actually test the children whose families do not opt out, you have done what you can reasonably be expected to do.  We’ve spoken as a family all together, adults and children, and we simply do not think that any of the arguments you have made or are likely to make in favor of annual testing are going to sway us.  When there is a state accountability system that is rational and used as the basis for helping schools, teachers, and students, when we accept that community and school improvement have to happen together, and when we recognize that we cannot improve schools without committing the necessary resources, then we’ll reconsider our decision.

Until then, no, you cannot test my child.

 

 

 

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Filed under Data, ESSA, Funding, NCLB, Opt Out, schools, Testing