Category Archives: Testing

Betsy DeVos Broke the Ed. Reform Coalition – For Now

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

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

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

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

Then again, maybe it is a bit surprising.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can Teaching Survive as a Profession?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Slay the Testing Beast: This does not mean doing away with any concept of standardized testing at all (although I know many advocates who wish for that).  It does mean, however, admitting once and for all what they cannot do.  Education reform has been adamant for 15 years that test data will first identify failing schools and provide them with incentives to improve and then that test data will objectively identify ineffective teachers and let us remove them so they harm no more children.  We know now that it has done no such thing, and that test-based accountability has created more problems than it has solved.  NCLB mandated testing has not told us about failing schools that we did not already know were struggling, and Race to the Top mandated growth measures have consistently failed to create evaluation systems that fairly identify teachers who should not be in the profession.  What they have done is wreak havoc on the curriculum, especially in communities of color, and restrict teachers’ professional autonomy.  Further, the tests have been used as rationales to privatize control of public education into hands that are inherently unaccountable to the communities they operate in and which increase costs and burdens for the remaining public schools. Instead of being a single, limited, tool of accountability, the tests have become the objects in and of themselves and rationales for “creative disruption” of a core democratic institution.
  2. If we are going to measure, be clear what we are measuring and why. Of course, teachers and schools should be accountable, but large standardized tests can only measure very narrow skill bands.  That’s a snapshot of a year’s worth of teaching, and often a poorly designed one that teachers do not get to see anyway.  At its best, such data can give higher level administrators an bird’s eye view of work across a school or a district, but it will not tell them what they find if they look closer.  There are schools with low test scores that are places of warmth and support but which need specific resources they are not getting.  There are schools with high test scores that are Dickensian nightmares of behavioral control and test preparation with little else.  There are also many different ways to define school success and until we acknowledge how limited test based measures are we are not going to give those concepts the attention they deserve.  Do schools with high poverty student populations work to develop their teachers?  Do they collaborate on problem solving for their students?  Are they well connected within the surrounding community?  Do they partner with local businesses, agencies, and organizations?  Do they actively reach out to parents and guardians?  Are they seeking grants and other opportunities for their academic programming?  Are the students happy and safe in the building?  There are many other ways to assess the work of schools and teachers if we can let go of the idea that only some measures are valid.
  3. Focus on retention and growth of teachers: Federal regulators and education reformers have been obsessed with creating a system that identifies the lowest ranked teachers via growth measures and then removes them from teaching.  Their tools are inadequate to the task and thoroughly miss that retention of experienced teachers is a far greater issue in the profession.  Experienced teachers are more effective than inexperienced teachers, and they provide a core of institutional and practice knowledge that both assists novices and cannot be easily replaced.  While meaningful supervision and assessment is important for novice teachers, it is at least as important to maintain our veterans.  If policy makers aimed their efforts at retention veteran teachers and establishing environments where teachers collaborate and support each other across experience levels, we would have a more stable core of teachers and teacher development in the early years would improve.
  4. Instead of attacking unions, develop administrators: It is almost religious dogma among education reformers that unions make it impossible to remove ineffective teachers.  This is false.  Unions do make it necessary for administrators to do their jobs well before removing a teacher with tenure, and the process may involve steps.  The benefit of this, however, is that experienced teachers are able to do their jobs without fear that they may face retaliation if they end up crossing an administrator.  What schools need are administrators who are adept instructional leaders and willing to engage in the process of removing a teacher when necessary.  What they absolutely do not need are teachers who have no confidence that they can speak up on the job in defense of their students.
  5. Healthy, collaborative schools work better for all: Even before the BATs/AFT workplace survey, we knew that the environment in a school is crucial.  Schools where teachers collaborate to help their children and which are led by administrators interested in substantive work centered on real learning are positive environments for student learning and for teacher growth.  Schools typified by isolated teachers subjected to micromanagement from rigid administrators are not.  Schools under pressure to meet unmanageable expectations generally do not foster the former.  While accountability proponents may be right to expect schools to work towards improvement, it is crucial that we seek to enable the conditions that make that improvement possible.
  6. Remember the teacher pipeline: It is all well and good that many advocates want to make it harder to become a teacher, but when narrowing that pipeline they need to remember two important considerations:  First, we need about 3 million teachers in the country at any given time, so while there is merit to improving teacher’s pay as requirements go up, there is a ceiling to that due to basic labor economics.  Second, if we are not going to be able to raise teacher pay to attract college students who have other career options, we have to foster those aspects of the profession that attract people beyond fame and money.  Historically, people have been attracted to the “psychic rewards” of teaching, those aspects of the work that develop a sense of efficacy and evidence of having done good in the world.  Such rewards are evident to potential teachers in schools where their own teachers are treated well, have professional autonomy, collaborate with each other, and are valued beyond what test scores they can generate.  Unless we pay careful attention to the vision of teaching as a profession that we project, we will have a terrible time convincing a new generation to pursue it.
  7. Pay up: It hurts the ears of politicians who do not want to consider tax increases, but education is not cheap, and it remains underfunded in many ways.  For example, when Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in the 1970s, it promised states that the federal government would pick up 40% of the cost of serving the children entitled to services under the act.  It has never done better than 20% of the costs, and the latest effort to fully fund education for the disabled sits in committee in the waning days of the 114th Congress.  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has openly mocked increased education funding, but his state remains $3.9 billion behind promised state funding annuallyShockingly poor school conditions can be found in urban districts like Detroit, but more than half of our nation’s aging schools need repairs and capital improvements.
  8. Refocus on equity: For 33 years, education policy has focused on increasing standards and accountability with an intense focus on test based accountability since 2001.  But during this time period, we have largely forgotten one of the most historically powerful enablers of teachers’ teaching and students’ learning: equity. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, federal policy aimed opening school to more students and enabling states and municipalities to serve these student populations, but since 1980, we have demanded more results from teachers and schools while failing to accept any responsibility for the well being of the children we send to those schools.  David Berliner noted this powerfully a decade ago:  “We need to face the fact that our whole society needs to be held as accountable for providing healthy children ready to learn, as our schools are for delivering quality instruction. One-way accountability, where we are always blaming the schools for the faults that we find, is neither just, nor likely to solve the problems we want to address.”  If we want schools and teachers to be fully capable partners in raising children up, we need to accept that we cannot kick the ladders out from under those same children and blame teachers when they do not catch them all.

It is past time to change our focus.

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

New Jersey <3's PARCC

Garden State teachers and students returned to school this month to find that both the state board of education and department of education have declared undying love and devotion to the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.  The decisions, made when presumably fewer people were looking, first enshrined the controversial assessments as the sole standardized exam accepted to meet graduation requirements for New Jersey high school students beginning in 2021, and for extra measure the state tripled the weight that those exams will play in teacher evaluations beginning this year.  It was a very busy summer for questionable examinations and discredited evaluations.

New Jersey has long required students to pass either a basic competency test or one of a range of tests used in the college application process in order to graduate, allowing students to assemble a portfolio of grades and other materials if an adequate test score is not recorded after attempting the exams.  This layered approach to a testing requirement made sense when applied to the entirety of the state.  After all, the requirement is to find a minimum level of competency required to graduate, so the logical option would be to give students different ways of demonstrating that competency and being certain that you are looking for what can be reasonably expected for students graduating from the state’s 586 school districts.  Moreover, it is a nod to simple reality:  high school students do not, as a whole, care a lot about proficiency exams administered as part of state accountability systems, although students with college ambitions have plenty of reasons to care about SAT, ACT, or advanced placement exams that carry actual personal consequences.  Washington D.C.’s Wilson High School saw this very phenomenon this year where students openly admitted that they skipped or ignored the PARCC exams to focus on advanced placement tests scheduled for the following week.

New Jersey will have none of that now.  By making PARCC the sole examination allowed for graduation, the state is telling all high school students they must take the state’s accountability exam seriously or face the possibility of not graduating.  It is also aiming directly at New Jersey’s Opt Out movement which, while not the same force across the Hudson in New York, still boasted tens of 1000s of students refusing PARCC with 15% of 11th graders refusing the exams in 2015.  That option will be vastly more problematic beginning in 2021, and parents who considered opting out in younger grades could easily be intimidated into not making that decision.  New Jersey’s rationale for making PARCC the sole manner for meeting graduation requirements seems aimed primarily at forcing reluctant students and families to take PARCC seriously.  As policy, this is a lot of stick with very little carrot.

It might also be illegal.  Sarah Blaine, an education activist, blogger, and attorney, wrote cogently back in May that the new regulations seem to contradict the law they intend to implement.  The state is required to administer a test for all students in 11th grade, and that test must “measure those minimum basic skills all students must possess to function politically, economically and socially in a democratic society: specifically, the test must measure the reading, writing, and computational skills students must demonstrate as minimum requirements for high school graduation.”  Ms. Blaine notes that the 10th grade ELA test will not be given to all 11th graders statewide by definition.  Further, she correctly notes that the content in the Algebra I test is taken by many New Jersey students as early as junior high school, leaving them in the ridiculous position of securing their “minimum” competency in math before they have even enrolled in high school.

Ms. Blaine was also correct when she noted that the state testing requirement only allows the state to deny a diploma to a student who does not meet the minimum basic skills — and the PARCC exam is, by design, not a measure of those skills at the 4 and 5 cut score levels.  This cannot be emphasized enough:  whatever else PARCC aims to measure, it is obvious from both available content and the results themselves that it is not an examination of grade level basic competenceNew Jersey boasted some significant improvements from the 2015 PARCC administration in 2016 (some of which might be explained by increased participation); the percentage of students scoring 4 or 5 on the 10th grade ELA exam was 44.4% compared to 36.6% in 2015, and the percentage of students scoring that on the Algebra I exam was 41.2% compared to 35% in 2015.  These gains are significant but would still leave more than half of New Jersey high school students ineligible to graduate.  Commissioner Hespe claims “Those are areas we know we have work to do,” but given that PARCC in 2015 pretty closely matched New Jersey’s performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)…

NJ NAEP AND PARCC

…and given that NAEP proficiency levels are not meant to measure minimum grade level expectations, the Commissioner can promise to work all he wants…he’s working with an examination whose proficiency levels are looking for and labeling advanced students.  We can have a very fruitful and important conversation about the unequal distribution of students scoring at those levels and about the unequal distributions of educational opportunity in the state – but not while threatening to withhold high school diplomas simply because students are not getting straight As.

Increasing the percentage of teacher evaluations based on test scores from 10% to 30% was always a threat waiting in the wings, but it remains a giant blunder of an idea.  New Jersey decreased its Student Growth Percentile (SGP) component in deference to the newness of PARCC in the Garden State, but increased familiarity with the exam does not mean that the bulk of the evidence is in favor of using growth measures to evaluate teachers.  If you like the expression “arbitrary and capricious,” you will enjoy the next 3-5 years in New Jersey as the state tries to fend off lawsuits from teachers inappropriately labeled as ineffective due to SGPs and as it tries (and likely fails) to explain why SGPs that more effectively measure student characteristics than teacher effectiveness should be used in evaluating teachers.  Fans of legal briefs should be popping the popcorn sometime next Spring.

Predicting the future is not exactly easy.  New Jersey’s $108 million contract with Pearson to administer PARCC has two years left, by which time Governor Chris Christie will no longer be in Trenton.  For that matter, PARCC’s long term health is legitimately in question.  The consortium web site no longer boasts a map of states using the exam on its homepage because in 2011, they were able to boast of 25 participating states that “collectively educate more than 31 million public K-12 students in the United States, over 60% of all students enrolled in the nation’s public schools.”  In the 2015-2016 school year, they had “eight fully participating states” and now offer a “tiered approach” for non-participating states to access PARCC content.  I’m not taking bets on PARCC dying any time soon, but I wouldn’t suggest anyone place similar bets on it surviving either.

One prediction is pretty simple, however.  In New Jersey, PARCC will become a de facto curriculum and disrupt even more children’s education.  We have seen this over and over again in the No Child Left Behind era, and while the new federal education law grants states more flexibility on how they use accountability testing, New Jersey has chosen to double down on the test and punish policies of the past 15 years.  School children in New Jersey, especially those in struggling districts, will get less science, less social studies, less art and music, and our youngest children will get a lot less play – and far more test preparation.   The Class of 2021 will begin ninth grade algebra in a little less than a year, and a substantial percentage of those taking the course will find out that they do not qualify to graduate after only one year of high school and will scramble to repeat the exam (at whose expense?) or assemble other evidence of their “basic competence” for the Commissioner to review.  The state DOE will take certain districts to the wood shed for plummeting graduation rates, and various parent coalitions will sue over the use of a test that violates the letter and spirit of the law as a graduation requirement.  My bet for the next few years in New Jersey?

fasten-your-seatbelts-o

“Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

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Filed under Chris Christie, classrooms, Common Core, ESSA, Opt Out, PARCC, Pearson, standards, Testing, VAMs

The Long Arm of the PARCC?

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

So, of course, that could not stand.

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

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

iN THE NAME OF PARCC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New York Evaluations Lose in Court

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

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

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

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

NYC VAM

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

NYC VAMreal

NYC VAMfake

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

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

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

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

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

How Far Have We Sunk? Pretty Far.

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

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

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

picard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gates

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

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

Kindergarten

 

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

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

Andrew Cuomo – Still Petty and Destructive

When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo gave his 2016 budget address, he sounded like a changed man.  Less that 4% of his speech was dedicated to P-12 education compared to over 20% of his 2015 budget address where he detailed a brutal agenda to make student test scores 50% of teachers’ evaluations and calling the existing teacher evaluation system, which he had previously championed, “baloney” solely because it failed to find more teachers incompetent.  Governor Cuomo charged hard at this agenda, ramming it through the budget process, but then he took a beating in public opinion polling and set off the largest opt out movement in the nation.  After months of various agencies and entities trying to walk back the harshest measures of the 2015 budget bill, Governor Cuomo’s 2016 speech in Albany presented a far less ambitious P-12 education agenda, highlighting only the light concessions he had made on standards and testing and promising to find enough money finally to stop stealing school aid from districts via the hated gap elimination adjustment.  Observers could have been forgiven for thinking this signaled a change in Governor Cuomo’s approach to education and that he might be willing to finally recognize that growth and support are better tools than test and punish.

Not a chance in Hell.

Last week, the state Division of the Budget, which reports directly to the Governor, announced that 70 schools which had improved sufficiently to be removed from receivership would no longer be eligible for state improvement funds.  The argument is based upon the fact that $75 million in state school improvement funding is only available to schools on the receivership list even though New York State Education Department spokesman Jonathan Burman argued that removing the money just as the schools have made progress “makes no sense.”

The Governor’s Division of the Budget could have responded in any number of ways.  They could have expressed pride in the success of schools that were removed from the list and pledged to find other ways to support their growth and development.  They could have lamented the limitations of the state receivership law that potentially leaves schools in the untenable position of having to function under constant threat of being closed even when they meet their improvement targets or of losing critically needed funds.  They could have called for an immediate legislative fix allowing the Division of the Budget to keep school improvement funds allocated while schools actually improve. After all, isn’t the purpose of examining school performance and requiring clear improvement targets about improving the schools?

Not a chance in Hell.

Spokesman for the budget division, Morris Peters fired back,  “To suggest that these schools should remain eligible for the funding even though they were removed from the program is contrary to the law and, most importantly, a blatant disservice to the children who have been condemned to these failing schools and received sub-quality education for decades.”  Mr. Peters went on to claim that NYSED had “unilaterally” removed the schools from the list, so they could not get the money.  Not a word about the improvement the schools had made.  Not a word of regret that schools which had made actual progress would lose funds.  Just a snarl worthy of the nastiest we have ever seen coming out of education “reform” in New York stapled to a gripe about NYSED actually exercising its legitimate authority.

It is helpful to revisit education authority in New York.  Contrary to Mr. Peters’ petulant gripe, the executive branch of New York has almost no direct education authority whatsoever.  Most of that authority resides with the New York State Education Department which is run by the Commissioner of Education appointed by the state Board of Regents.  The Regents, through the Commissioner, oversee the complex and sprawling University of the State of New York which includes over 7000 public and private schools, 248 public and private colleges and universities, 7000 libraries, 750 museums, the State Archives, 48 licensed professions employing over 750,000 practitioners, and 240,000 certified public school teachers, administrators, and counselors.  The Regents themselves are selected by the Legislature to represent different judicial districts and at large seats, and they elect their own Chancellor. The Executive Branch, meaning the Governor’s office, has no legal authority over the USNY and its board of Regents whatsoever.

This is not to say that the Governor is without any authority or influence.  The budget is a powerful tool with which to shape agendas, and Mr. Cuomo has wielded it like Mjolnir to smash everything in sight.  The Governor can also pressure legislators to pass favored policies, and he can cultivate a working relationship with the Regents.  Certainly, Governor Cuomo and former Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch enjoyed a chummy enough partnership, exchanging letters towards the end of calendar year 2014 that became a rough outline of Mr. Cuomo’s 2015 education agenda.  However, the Board of Regents has a new Chancellor, Betty Rosa, a former New York City teacher and administrator, who told reporters that if she were a parent and not on the Board of Regents, she “would opt out at this time.” Time will obviously tell, but it is very likely that Governor Cuomo will face far more challenges from Chancellor Rosa than he would like.

Which makes the sneering disdain from Mr. Cuomo’s budget spokesman so glaring.  Under the terms of waivers from the worst provisions of the No Child Left Behind law that New York got from the Obama administration, the state has to identify and provide interventions for so-called priority and focus schools that comprise the bottom 5% and 10% of schools respectively.  Additional legislation in New York requires that schools be identified as “struggling” and “persistently struggling”among the 5% designated “priority schools,” and these schools have very short timelines within which to make progress before they are at risk of extremely drastic consequences such as being closed and turned over to private management.  The more savvy reader will note that, based upon test scores, there will ALWAYS be a “bottom 5%” of schools in the state, so even if schools currently on the list are removed, a fresh round of schools will be eligible for priority school status immediately and given the same threats.

Not that that matters to the Governor’s office which complained bitterly that NYSED used its authority to recognize schools facing severe consequences and had improved.  Apparently, it doesn’t even matter that many of the schools removed from the list had actually made progress in the previous year according to federal accountability reports that were not available when they were originally listed.  If I had to guess, I’d wager that Governor Cuomo is most upset that the schools are no longer legally under threat of being shut down and given to charter school networks so clearly favored by him and by his campaign donors.  Recognize that the schools in question were making progress?  Recognize that remaining on the list would keep them under constant threat even though they had succeeded in beginning the improvement process?  Recognize that progress should be supported and call for ways to continue to support the schools even though they no longer met the criteria for “struggling” and “persistently struggling” schools?  Recognize that some of the interventions slated under the state grants – such as developing community schools with wrap around services for high need students – are interventions that all schools with students in extreme poverty should consider?

Not a chance in Hell. This is Andrew Cuomo’s Albany.

 

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Filed under Betty Rosa, Funding, MaryEllen Elia, NCLB, New York Board of Regents, politics, Testing

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

NYC Hasn’t Gotten the Opt Out Memo

Let’s begin with one simple premise: nobody at the New York State Education Department wants to see Opt Out continue to be a significant factor in the Empire State.  The United States Department of Education sent a variety of states letters explaining they had an obligation to test 95% of all student in all subgroups without fail, even offering various measures from cajoling to threatening that the states could take to get all of those students to sit down and be tested. After some initial stumbles, NYSED settled on a “kinder and gentler” approach, trying to coax the 20% of eligible families to opt back in to the tests.  Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and Governor Andrew Cuomo quickly ran away from NYSED Commissioner Elia’s suggestion that districts with high opt out might lose funding.  In short order, Commissioner Elia affirmed that her office had no intention of withholding funds and admitted that parents had the legal right to refuse to submit their child for the state exams.  In the following months, Albany introduced a series of changes to the exams – such as reducing them by a few question and removing time limits – that they hoped with allay parental concerns, and Commissioner Elia’s office put together a “tool kit” for district and schools to use to explain the exams to parents.  The information provided for both letters and presentations emphasizes what NYSED sees as positive and necessary aspects of the tests instead of negative consequences for low test participation rates.

Parents and educators may disagree about the significance of the changes and about the accuracy of the information in the state materials, but the strategy was obvious: Gently persuade parents and communities back into the fold.  This was certainly a sensible approach considering the pasting Albany took not only on state testing but also on the entire education agenda championed by Governor Cuomo throughout 2015.  Even before he managed to bully his plans to use state tests as 50% of teacher evaluations through the Assembly, voters disapproved of his education agenda by extremely wide margins.  The Governor took such a pummeling in the polls on education in 2015, that his 2016 budget address only had 364 words on P-12 education that more or less reduced his entire platform to “yadda yadda yadda…teachers are swell.”  When it comes to public education in the Empire State, our leaders in Albany have spent most of 2016 trying to pour gallons of honey on their plate full of vinegar.

Someone in New York City did not get the memo, apparently.

Test refusal was not a significant issue in New York City last year, although a handful of schools saw much higher opt out rates than the city in general. But the office of New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina apparently wants to take no chances of it gaining more than a toehold.  Pro-testing forces upstate seem happy to rely upon outside groups to carry the “opt in” message and to focus on emphasizing what they see as meeting test protesters part way, but the offices in Tweed aren’t taking any risks that opt out can grow and thrive in the Big Apple. In the run up to the tests, The New York Times reported ongoing and serious negative talk about teachers who spoke out against the tests and in favor of opting out:

At a forum in December, Anita Skop, the superintendent of District 15 in Brooklyn, which had the highest rate of test refusals in the city last year, said that for an educator to encourage opting out was a political act and that public employees were barred from using their positions to make political statements.

On March 7, the teachers at Public School 234 in TriBeCa, where only two students opted out last year, emailed the school’s parents a broadside against the tests. The email said the exams hurt “every single class of students across the school” because of the resources they consumed.

But 10 days later, when dozens of parents showed up for a PTA meeting where they expected to hear more about the tests, the teachers were nowhere to be seen. The school’s principal explained that “it didn’t feel safe” for them to speak, adding that their union had informed them that their email could be considered insubordination. The principal, Lisa Ripperger, introduced an official from the Education Department who was there to “help oversee our meeting.”

Several principals said they had been told by either the schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, or their superintendents that they and their teachers should not encourage opting out. There were no specific consequences mentioned, but the warnings were enough to deter some educators.

One could possibly claim teachers speaking against the tests are engaging in political speech against contract rule – or one could argue they are expressing a professional opinion on the negative impact of testing they see with their own eyes in their own classrooms.  Certainly, the letter from PS234 teachers, as described, focuses on the consequences to students’ learning conditions rather than on any political outcome, but DOE is clearly trying to back channel messages to principals and teachers that negative comments about the test are off limits.  That would certainly explain an incident at PS 84 in Williamsburg where a principal chastised a fifth grader handing out Opt Out information until the child cried and then herded all third through fifth grade into an impromptu assembly to tell them to “get this opt out stuff out of your head.”  The principal went on to tell students not to listen to their parents and that the state exams would make them smarter.

That was not the behavior of a professional educational leader who feels free to allow open discussion of an important issue within the school.  For that matter, the principal’s behavior was arguably in violation of long standing case law on students’ first amendment rights within school.

Susan Trout, a Manhattan parent, forwarded a letter that her child’s middle school principal sent to all 8th grade parents, warning them about the consequences of a large number of opt outs:

This is a “low stakes year” for the eighth graders. Their performance on the exams will not be used by the high schools for placement or for admissions. It is not, however, a “low stakes year” for *******. If we do not test 95% of our students, the school will automatically be categorized as a School Under Review by New York State. This will result in a series of measures which may force us to change our curriculum, our staffing decisions and our program. It most certainly comes with close review of the school by the state, along with the paperwork to defend the school’s performance. This may negatively affect the students who will be at ***** for the next couple of years.

According to Ms. Trout, parents in her school who wrote to the principal expressing their desire to opt out of the test were then contacted individually by the school’s parent coordinator with the following message:

Hello.  By refusing to participate, you are putting us in jeopardy of no longer being considered a school in good standing.  We must have 95% participation to keep our school grade as is.  I would ask you to reconsider having your children take the test.  It is actually good practice for  their high school career since they will be tested a great deal in the college application process!

She then contacted the office of the Public Advocate in New York City for clarification, and got quite a different answer:

Regulations state that if a district has 3 consecutive years failing a SPECIFIC category, then they can be identified. If one year it’s because of special Ed scores, next year participation rates, the next was a whole other category, then no changes. Has to be failure of the SAME category 3 years running.  Even the handful of districts that fell below 95% for 4 years in a row (handful in NYS) were still not penalized or labeled. The label forces a plan put in place to fix the category/reason for failure, in this case, a parent boycott. The state knew better than to go forward with any consequence. 

Districts that were focus districts last year AND had less than 95% were taken off the list. Doesn’t make sense that % alone would cause them to be labeled. I realize all of the above specifies districts, not schools. However,confirmed by DOE staffer: there is absolutely NO POLICY that says one instance of <95% participation would result in “automatic characterization” of anything by NYS. It’s not an “automatic” process and is in fact based upon the previous 2-3 years in the event that a school falls below 95% in one year.

The information given by DOE to the Public Advocate’s office is diametrically opposed to the information a middle school administration circulated to parents.  Ms. Trout asked her parent coordinator about this discrepancy and was told that the information was from a “directive” from the district superintendent. Again, this is completely out of proportion to what any other level of education governance in the state is saying right now, and it is vexing, not because the city administration believes in testing, but because it is relying on incomplete and often misleading means to support the tests.

There was a brief moment, when it looked like the NYC educational bureaucracy was softening a bit.  Chancellor Farina was reported as having said in a private meeting that she would consider opting out a child if that child had a certain kind of Individualized Education Plan or was a new arrival in the country with very limited English, and Mayor Bill de Blasio met with opt out advocates in order to hear their views, clarifying that he still thought the tests were important.

Any hope that there was room for openness at Tweed, however, was shut down rapidly as the tests began this week.  Chancellor Farina said that her earlier comments were taken “out of context” and she further chastised parents who opt out, saying: “I believe students go to school to be held accountable for their work…What are you saying about your child?  What are you saying about your belief in them to do something that they’ve been gearing for all year?” This statement is fairly breathtaking.  It is one thing to believe in a system of school accountability that includes standardized testing, although the history of the No Child Left Behind era is pretty clear on this: test based accountability has had 15 years for results and it does not have themBut the Chancellor’s statement frames the accountability tests as objectives of the school year unto themselves.  The tests hold students “accountable for their work”?  The state standardized accountability test is “something they’ve been gearing for all year”?  I can honestly think of few ways of framing this worse than Chancellor Farina just did.  My children are preparing for many important things in their education this year – sitting in a standardized exam that takes longer to finish than the LSAT or the MCAT is just about the least important thing they could do.

I suppose — I just suppose — that we could be at least a little grateful for the wild spinning and random lashing out from the Chancellor’s office.  NYSED has tinkered a smidgen around the edges of the tests and they’ve taken a softer tone with the public.  But there can be no doubt – they want Opt Out to go away so they can keep these tests as the status quo.  Chancellor Farina, on the other hand, is being aggressive about her dislike for Opting Out, leading to repeated situations where parents are being told information that is flatly contrary to NYSED’s stated policies. History suggests that this level of overreaction and misdirection aimed at parents backfires.  If Opt Out grows in NYC, we might just have the Chancellor to thank for it.

Opting Out

 

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Filed under Activism, MaryEllen Elia, NCLB, Opt Out, Testing