Tag Archives: Andrew Cuomo

New York Testing Gets a Bit Weird

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

That was the theory, anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

cat on leash

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

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

Andrew Cuomo and the Difference a Year Makes

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

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

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

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

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

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

What has happened since then has been a lot different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Oh, right.

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

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

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

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

Preparing for the Post-NCLB World

Barring substantial shifts in the political landscape, both houses of Congress are expected to vote on the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act which has just come out of the conference committee.  If passed in both the House and the Senate, the bill, dubbed the Every Student Succeeds Act, is expected to be signed into law by President Obama before the end of the year.  This will officially usher us into the post No Child Left Behind era, and, as is typical with legislation nowadays, there is something in the final product to frustrate and worry pretty much everyone.  While ESSA represents tangible improvements over the widely hated NCLB, there are worrisome elements in it and a great deal of larger and more fundamental aspects are handed over to the states where we can probably expect prolonged fights over implementation.

Nineteenth Century lawyer-poet John Godfrey Saxe noted, “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.”  He probably had something like the agonizing and lengthy wrangling over rewriting the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in mind when he said it, especially this final stretch when lawmakers will vote on a 1000 page long conference bill they have not read thoroughly.  And, indeed, it seems some choice bits got chopped up and inserted into this final version, notably a chance for private financial interests to make money on public education dollars.

we-re-making-sausages-o

Consider language for Title I, Part D for prevention and intervention programs for children and youth who are neglected, delinquent, and at risk, section 1424 allowing funds to go to “pay for success initiatives,” and similar language in Title IV, Part A.  ESSA defines a “pay for success initiative” as a “performance-based grant, contract, or cooperative agreement awarded by a public entity in which a commitment is made to pay for improved outcomes that result in social benefit and direct cost savings or cost avoidance to the public sector.”  The gist is that private entities can put up money as a loan for a public program and if they save money in the process of being more effective or more efficient than the public sector, they can keep a portion of the money saved. This is the kind of creative use of private philanthropy and financing that is supposed to incentivize deep pocketed entities to do good – and end up doing right well in the process.

Goldman Sachs experimented with the model in Utah by financing preschool for 595 additional children in a well regarded program, 110 of whom were expected to need special education services. After a year in the Goldman sponsored intervention, only 1 student entering Kindergarten was found to need those services, and the financial giant will now be paid $2500 per pupil per grade without special education services until students reach sixth grade when the amount of money will go down. That’ll come to $1.9 million dollars on top of the original money loaned and paid back.

Fred Klonsky, a retired Chicago teacher and current blogger, is highly skeptical both of the payments back to Goldman and of the claim that 109 students out of 110 were no longer in need of special education services after a year in preschool.  I have to admit that I share that skepticism and certainly think that social impact bond financing allowed in ESSA will require very vigilant monitoring to make certain outfits like Goldman Sachs are not creating perverse incentives to simply overlook a need and “save” money.  They are a largely unproven vehicle for creating social change, although some are organized to minimize risk for private capital while giving them a lucrative upside.  It isn’t hard to imagine who lobbied to get that language inserted into the Title I and Title IV changes then.

For that matter, as Mercedes Schneider notes in her first assessment of the bill, charter schools get a big, wet kiss, and there are grants that read as friendly to Teach for America’s role in “teacher preparation”.

So – sausage.

That said, there are many changes to the current education landscape contained in ESSA, many of them positive.  The Badass Teachers Association has a solid look of the good and the far less than good in the bill.  On the troubling side, ESL students are potentially labeled using very crude means, encouragement of merit pay, misplaced confidence in adaptive assessments and misgivings that “individualized instruction” will lead to more time in front of screens rather than with teachers, and, of greatest concern, continuation of NCLB’s requirement of annual testing of every child each year between grades 3 and 8 and once in high school and it caps alternate assessments for disabled students.  However, ESSA spins much more authority for accountability and assessments to the states, includes mechanisms to improve teacher workplace conditions, prohibits the federal DOE from interfering in state laws regarding parents opting children out of state assessments, and there are positive developments for homeless children, impact aid, Native American education, state innovation and local flexibility.

Most notable, however, are the repeated smack downs of the federal Department of Education and clear prohibitions on the Secretary of Education taking an active role in shaping state policies regarding standards, assessments, and accountability systems.  Consider this from Title VIII, section 8526:

No officer or employee of the Federal Government shall, through grants, contracts, or other cooperative agreements, mandate, direct, or control a State, local educational agency, or school’s specific instructional content, academic standards and assessments, curricula, or program of instruction developed and implemented to meet the requirements of this Act (including any requirement, direction, or mandate to adopt the Common Core State Standards developed under the Common Core State Standards Initiative, any other academic standards common to a significant number of States, or any assessment, instructional content, or curriculum aligned to such standards), nor shall anything in this Act be construed to authorize such officer or employee to do so.

I believe that when historians write the story of the Test and Punish Era of public school reform, this language will be noted as the “Take A Seat, Arne” Act of 2015.

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Education Week noted a week ago that “accountability hawks” were already unhappy with the information coming out of the conference committee.  Sandy Kress, an original designer of NCLB, worried that states were going to be allowed to create accountability systems not based on student learning.  Chad Aldeman, a partner at Bellweather Education Partners, worries that states will give in to inertia and not push for improvements for their most at risk students.  Meanwhile, the National Association of Secondary Schools Principals applauded the available framework, noting the removal of Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements and “unworkable” school turnaround models.  The National Governors Association announced full approval for the conference bill, saying that it “restored the balance” between Washington, D.C. and the states.

So – is NCLB well and truly dead?

Not exactly, no.

While some of the worst provisions of NCLB have finally had a stake driven into their hearts, the states are still required to test and the create accountability systems, so the upshot is that making sure both those tests and the systems are fair and based upon what schools and children need will now have to be done state by state.  Monty Neill of FairTest notes that this will not be a simple matter: States still have to rank schools largely on test scores, there is ambiguity on how “additional indicators” for English Language Learners will be weighted compared to test scores, states have to identify the bottom 5% of schools based on test scores and intervene with measures designed by the state.  In other words: whether or not schools find themselves under a test and punish regime or in a monitoring and support system will largely depend upon how states treat their newly reclaimed authority.

There is no reason to believe that the advocates of test and punish will pack up shop now that the Secretary of Education has been severely limited.  After all, federal help was useful for the spread of the Common Core State Standards, the testing consortia, and the adoption of growth measures in teacher evaluation, but it was hardly to only entity to help.  Both the National Governors Association and the National Council of Chief State School Officers were on board with the Common Core State Standards and the shared assessments.  The Gates Foundation is certainly active in state and local education policy, using grants and other leverage to push through favored policies. Powerful private interests have financial stakes in declaring public schools failures and turning them over to private management.  They give lavishly to their allies in state government.  Think about governors like Andrew Cuomo of New York, Dannel Malloy of Connecticut, Chris Christie of New Jersey, and Scott Walker of Wisconsin – advocates of our fully public schools have our work cut out for us.

So – roll up your sleeves wherever you live and work.  This has only just started.

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Filed under Arne Duncan, charter schools, Chris Christie, Common Core, ESSA, Gates Foundation, NCLB, Opt Out, PARCC, politics, standards, Testing, VAMs

Being Thankful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eva Moskowitz and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Month

Eva Moskowitz, founder and CEO of the Success Academy charter school network in New York City, is used to getting her way.

Since founding her first school in 2006, her network has grown to 34 schools with 11,000 students, and she is on track for 43 schools by next year with a goal of 100 eventually.  Her school lotteries were portrayed as the only hope of desperate parents in Waiting for Superman, a 2010 documentary/propaganda piece by David Guggenheim, and email records demonstrate that the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg lavished her with preferential treatment.  When both the state legislature and the office of Comptroller tried to exert legal authority to audit how Success Academy spends the public money it receives, Moskowitz has gone to court to block them – and won.  Her deep pocketed backers can raise millions of dollars on her behalf in a single night, and their donations to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, along with donations from Moskowitz’s own political action committee, have guaranteed preferential treatment from the Governor’s office.

This treatment had tangible results early in the administration of Mayor Bill DeBlasio when Governor Cuomo rode to Moskowitz’s “rescue” after the new administration put a stop to 3 of 17 hastily approved Success Academy co-locations – one of which would have displaced severely disabled students from their school and into district schools far less able to serve them properly.  Moskowitz ran to the press, declaring that the new mayor had “declared war” on her and the entire charter sector, and a multi-million dollar ad campaign materialized practically overnight.  Moskowitz closed all of her schools to take parents and students to Albany for a rally on the same day that Mayor DeBlasio was in the state capitol rallying for universal pre-Kindergarten, and Governor Cuomo appeared at her side vowing to “save” charter schools.  It was later revealed that Governor Cuomo not only attended the Moskowitz rally, but also he essentially helped orchestrate from his office.  Later that Spring, Governor Cuomo delivered a budget package that required New York City to either house charter schools in public school buildings or to pay for their private space and that forbids charging such schools rent.  Recall that Moskowitz has fought tooth and nail to prevent anyone from knowing how she spends the public funds she collects.

Moskowitz has grown used to adulation in the media as well.  Jonathan Chait believes that Moskowitz is a “hero of social justice” and declared her schools “a staggering triumph of social mobility” – an odd claim for a school network that has not graduated a single high school student yet.  Chait chalks up opposition to Moskowitz solely to unions grousing that her non-unionized faculty have such staggeringly high test scores.  The New York Times’ Daniel Bergner authored a piece for the weekly magazine that was an astonishing exercise in hagiography, plainly ignoring almost any input he got that was not laudatory.  Interestingly enough, Mr. Bergner pretty much signaled his intention to write such an imbalanced piece in the comments section of this WNYC story — almost 6 months before his article in the Times was published:

Daniel Bergner from Brooklyn

There’s something bizarre about the way the charter school story tends to be reported by the New York media….Success, the charter organization that’s been most vilified by Mayor DeBlasio, has a stunning record of academic achievement. It’s a record that puts many traditional public schools to shame. This should come at the top of any story like this one by WNYC….Money matters, yes. But the biggest question is how a school run by Success in Harlem, a school that teaches mostly underprivileged kids, has managed to out-perform every single public school in the state on math exams. Let’s look closely at that. We all might learn something infinitely valuable.

In July of this year, billionaire hedge fund manager John Paulson, gave a single $8.5 million gift to the network for creating even more schools. My goodness, but it is good to be Queen.

But things have unraveled a bit for Moskowitz.  First, The New York Times ran a fairly comprehensive story in April covering the network’s record of very high standardized test scores and its similar record of extreme practices, including public shaming of students with low scores and practice test environments so high pressure that young children wet themselves. Moskowitz immediately wrote an email to her network’s employees to complain that the article, which included both positives and negatives, was “slanted” and that the Times was “out to get us.”  Moskowitz erroneously claimed that the article was the “first time” that the Times had given Success Academy “even moderate praise” — apparently forgetting the Sunday magazine feature by Daniel Bergner less than a year previously.  In her email, she continued her long standing habit of telling her employees and families that the outside world is out to get them: “We are disrupters, we are changing the status quo, and that threatens a system that has existed more or less unchanged for decades.”

The new school year began in a manner to which we have grown accustomed: Moskowitz’s political allies in the billionaire funded astroturf organization, “Families” for Excellent Schools, running hit ads on Mayor DeBlasio. The ads were racially charged, accusing the mayor of leaving over half a million students in “failing schools” (up from last year’s accusations of 140,000 students suffering that fate), and the ads drew immediate and harsh criticism.  Moskowitz used two scheduled half days of classes to provide students, families, and teachers as window dressing for different “Families” for Excellent Schools sponsored rallies, an action that would likely get any public school superintendent swiftly fired.  Moskowitz also teased the media early in October with a planned big announcement on the 7th, which turned out to be her stating that she would not seek the mayor’s office in 2017 as many of her supporters had anticipated.  Instead, she declared she would continue to focus on education where she compared the work of her network to the development of the iPhone.

Things went south rather quickly from there.

On October 12th, PBS Newshour aired a story by retiring veteran education reporter, John Merrow, detailing the use of repeated suspensions on children as young as 5 years old within the Success Academy network and accusations that Moskowitz uses her 65 infraction long discipline policy to repeatedly suspend students she does not wish to educate until parents withdraw them from school:

The piece, which includes lengthy segments of Moskowitz looking uncomfortable while claiming her schools don’t suspend students for many of the very minor infractions that are listed as suspension worthy (Mr. Merrow includes the entire disciplinary code, verbatim, on his personal blog), also included material from a mother and son who were willing to talk on camera about some of the incidents that led to his repeated suspensions from a Success Academy.  While those incidents were quite minor, his mother also speaks about her son having outbursts, allowing a reasonable viewer can infer that his full range of behavior was broader than discussed on camera, and the mother says her son was suspended in first grade for losing his temper.  The mother and son take up a grand total of one minute and 12 seconds in the over nine minute long story.  Although the story says their names, I am not going to do so for reasons that should be evident next.

Eva Moskowitz was not happy.

In a lengthy and accusatory letter to PBS that she posted to Success Academy’s website (and to which I refuse to link), she demanded an apology from PBS, disputed Mr. Merrow’s factual findings, and was especially incensed about the inclusion of material from the mother and son who were willing to go on camera.  She released a series of a email communications where she claimed Mr. Merrow misled her (although to my reading they also seem to indicate that she wanted practical editorial control over the story), and then she did something that any ethical educator should find completely unthinkable: she detailed specific incidents from the young man’s disciplinary record, including verbatim text of email communications from teachers about particular events.  PBS Newshour responded with a clarification that acknowledges the story should have allowed Moskowitz an opportunity to respond on camera to the allegations but that also defended the accuracy of Mr. Merrow’s piece overall.

The reason that I refuse to link to the Success Academy letter or to name the mother and son in this piece is because of a federal law that should have limited Moskowitz’s response to the Newshour segment.  The Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) forbids schools and school officials from releasing education records to anyone without prior approval from a parent or a student (if that student is over 18).  While I am not bound by FERPA in this matter, as a matter of ethics, I find it appalling that Moskowitz would respond to the situation by publicly releasing information on a child, now ten years old. While the mother and son did go on camera to discuss some of his disciplinary problems at Success Academy, they did not approve of the release of his full disciplinary record and FERPA is written in such a way that such express permission must be granted.  Even if one is inclined to think that Merrow did not play fair in his story, the only fully legal response from Moskowitz, and the only one Mr. Merrow could have aired, would be: “We cannot discuss his whole record without permission, but suffice to say, there was more going on than his mother said.”  It is also the only moral response, but Moskowitz has always had a scorched earth approach when it comes to her reputation.

Moskowitz was sent a cease and desist letter demanding the letter be taken down from the school web site and disputing a number of facts as portrayed in it.  In response, Success Academy put another letter on its website, claiming a “First Amendment” right to respond as they did, saying: “Success Academy had a constitutional right to speak publicly to set the record straight about the reasons that your son received suspensions.”  This interpretation is false as FERPA does not prevent them from responding, but it absolutely limits the legal content of that response.  As of October 30th, the Federal Department of Education has been sent a formal request to intervene in the case on the grounds of Moskowitz’s violation of FERPA and refusal to remedy the situation.

Moskowitz’s bad month was not over, believe it or not.

On October 29th, The New York Times ran a blockbuster story that the principal of Success Academy in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, Candido Brown, kept a list of 16 students entitled “Got to Go,” meaning they were students he wanted to leave the school due to their difficulties in adjusting to the strict disciplinary policies.  Kate Taylor’s story confirms that the mother of one student on the list was actually told that Mr. Brown would have to call 911 if her daughter, who was six years old at the time, continued to defy rules.  Nine students on the list withdrew from the Fort Greene Success Academy, parents reported their lives disrupted by constant calls to pick up their children early, and four of the parents told the Times they were directly told they should seek another school.  While the “got to go” list may have been restricted to Principal Brown’s school, other sources reported similar behavior at other schools in the network.  One principal told employees not to automatically send re-enrollment paperwork to certain families, and another source described a network attorney describing the withdrawal of a particular student “a big win” for the school.  Other sources described network staff and leaders “explicitly talked about suspending students or calling parents into frequent meetings as ways to force parents to fall in line or prompt them to withdraw their children.”

Eva 4

Moskowitz quickly threw together a press conference on October 30th with many of her network’s principals standing behind her and denied that Principal Brown was following Success Academy policy.  She affirmed her support for the tough disciplinary practices of her schools but insisted they were about having high standards and denied any intention to use them to drive away undesired students.  In an interesting twist, Moskowitz declared that, despite advice from others, she would not fire Principal Brown, asserting “at Success we simply don’t believe in throwing people on the trash heap for the sake of public relations.” (That fate after all, is reserved for Kindergarten children)  Principal Brown then took the podium in tears and took full responsibility for the “got to go” list, saying “I was not advised by my organization to put children on the list. I was not advised by my organization to push children out of my school.”  Moskowitz, true to form, sent an email to staffers on the 30th where she, again, accused the media of having “conspiracy theories” about Success Academy – because when faced with the slow unraveling of your organizational mythology, the best thing to do is harp about how outsiders are out to get you.

It is, honestly, puzzling that Success Academy would continue to go through this charade trying to convince people that they do not force students out as policy – given that in 2010, they pretty much admitted it in the open in a lengthy portrait of the growing network in New York Magazine.  Consider this from the last section of the article:

At Harlem Success, disability is a dirty word. “I’m not a big believer in special ed,” Fucaloro says. For many children who arrive with individualized education programs, or IEPs, he goes on, the real issues are “maturity and undoing what the parents allow the kids to do in the house—usually mama—and I reverse that right away.” When remediation falls short, according to sources in and around the network, families are counseled out. “Eva told us that the school is not a social-service agency,” says the Harlem Success teacher. “That was an actual quote.”

…. “They don’t provide the counseling these kids need.” If students are deemed bad “fits” and their parents refuse to move them, the staffer says, the administration “makes it a nightmare” with repeated suspensions and midday summonses. After a 5-year-old was suspended for two days for allegedly running out of the building, the child’s mother says the school began calling her every day “saying he’s doing this, he’s doing that. Maybe they’re just trying to get rid of me and my child, but I’m not going to give them that satisfaction.”At her school alone, the Harlem Success teacher says, at least half a dozen lower-grade children who were eligible for IEPs have been withdrawn this school year. If this account were to reflect a pattern, Moskowitz’s network would be effectively winnowing students before third grade, the year state testing begins. “The easiest and fastest way to improve your test scores,” observes a DoE principal in Brooklyn, “is to get higher-performing students into your school.” And to get the lower-performing students out.

So we’ve known this since at least 2010.  Eva Moskowitz does not believe in serving children with special needs as required by federal law, and the network openly scoffs at individualized education plans, blaming them on bad parenting.  Her schools don’t provide needed resources and counseling, favoring repeated suspensions and harassing parents until they leave.  Moskowitz, referencing special needs children, directly told teachers that the school is “not a social service agency.”

But we’re supposed to believe Principal Brown came up with his “got to go” list all on his own.

data laughing

And just to make the month complete: Moskowitz is heading for another legal showdown.  This time, it is over her insistence that the city of New York give her money allocated for pre-Kindergarten providers but not require her to sign the city contract that every other provider, including other charter schools, has signed.  Success Academy already has 72 pre-K students, and the network would be eligible for $10,000 per student in funding, but city Comptroller Scott Stringer declared that Moskowitz cannot decline the contract that every one of the other 277 approved pre-K providers has already signed.  This is true to form for Moskowitz who has won other legal fights to prevent any state or city authority from oversight over how she spends the public money she receives.  Given how other charter providers have already signed the same contract, some grudgingly, this fight seems more geared towards maintaining her special status as the charter network entirely above public accountability of any sort than over much else.

I suspect that Moskowitz will bounce back from this month.  After all, she still has Governor Cuomo in her hip pocket (although he isn’t winning many popularity contests himself).  More importantly, she still has her billionaire backed political machine designed to bend public opinion and politicians to her cause, and there is no indication that they are going anywhere.  She is still the driving force behind the largest charter network in the city, and her goal of 100 schools is still probably attainable.  However, in a very real way, I suspect one thing is changing permanently.

Moskowitz is losing total control of her situation.

Success Academy is run in a very particular way.  It has a dynamic, forceful, and very visible personality at the top of the organization.  The policies, tone, and demeanor of the organization flow entirely from that person who exerts an extraordinary level of control of the operation right down to the classroom.  There is a very narrow band of acceptable behaviors and attitudes.  Teachers who embody those behaviors and attitudes can rise very quickly with some becoming school principals in their mid-20s, and students who do similarly well are rewarded with toys and other goodies. Those who do not thrive are subjected to rigorous and frequent “corrections” that either mold them into proper form or convince them to leave. The network has an arguably paranoid attitude towards “outsiders,” frequently declaring to themselves that figures in the press and public are out to get them because they have cracked the code and are disruptors of the status quo.  Those who leave and speak out about the network’s inside information are viciously attacked.

But Success Academy has grown far too large to keep the lid on everything now.  Moskowitz enrolls 11,000 students in 34 schools.  She has around 1000 teachers and staff.  With such numbers and given their policies, there will likely be 1000s of former “scholars” and 100s of former teachers in short order, and all of them are not going to be intimidated into silence about what they saw while there.  The simple fact is that Moskowitz absolutely cannot keep total control over what people say and know anymore, and it is her own policies of driving away students she does not want and burning out teachers that has put her in this position.  So even if she fully recovers from this month, I think it is likely we will see many more months like this.

The next couple of years will be interesting.

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Filed under "Families" For Excellent Schools, charter schools, Corruption, Media, politics

NYSED’s Incoherent Opt Out Muddle

Pity those poor zealots of standardized testing in Albany.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 2015 round goes to Opt Out:

mic drop

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

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

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

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

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

The New York Times Ponders An Emerging Teacher Shortage

Motoko Rich of The New York Times wrote a feature article for today’s print edition on the looming teacher shortage and the nationwide scramble to fill available teaching positions.  Predictions of a future teacher shortage are hardly new.  Consider this Senate hearing in 1997 where the then frequently made prediction that we would need “2 million new teachers over the next 10 years” was repeated by Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts:

This chart is a good summation as to what the current conditions are. This year, K-12 enrollment reached an all-time high and will continue to rise over the next 7 years. 6,000 new public schools will be needed by the year 2006 just to maintain current class sizes. We will also need to hire 2 million teachers over the next decade to accommodate rising student enrollments and massive teacher requirements. And because of the overcrowding, schools are using trailers for classrooms and teaching students in former hallways, closets, and bathrooms. Overcrowded classrooms undermine discipline and decrease student morale.

The prediction seemed a lot less dire when compared to the fact that, at the time, we credentialed about 200,000 new teachers every year — or roughly 2 million over 10 years. This time, however, it might be different.

Ms. Rich’s article cites that budget cuts following the Great Recession led to dismissals across the country, which may have led to fewer college students willing to accumulate debt for uncertain job prospects.  Further, with the economic recovery showing sustained growth over the past few years, there may be a larger array of more attractive job prospects for the college educated.  Whatever the cause, the result is that school districts are having to dig deeper into the labor barrel to find people people willing to teach or even to find people with the appropriate credential to teach.  Ms. Rich’s article pays special attention to California which had 45,000 teaching candidates seeking credentials as the recession came on in 2008, but since then the number of candidates in programs has dropped more than 50% to barely 20,000 in 2012.  The Golden State used to issue roughly 20,000 credentials a year, but by 2012 that number was 15,000 – there are currently 21,500 spots open this year.  Ms. Rich cites federal data showing a 30% decline nationwide in the number of people seeking to become teachers.

This fact, and the potential reasons behind it, makes this teacher shortage potentially very different and one to which we should pay close attention.  While it may indeed be true that we had a hiccup due to uncertain job prospects during the Great Recession and that competition from growing technology fields could be factors in this shortage, Ms. Rich did not examine another possibility that might make this shortage far harder to overcome with typical labor market responses:

We’ve made teaching suck the past 15 years.

I just wrote about the groundbreaking collaboration between the Badass Teachers Association and the American Federation of teachers on the Quality of Workplace Life survey released this Spring.  While the 30,000 respondents to the 80 question survey were not statistically sampled, their input is an important first step towards understanding the consequences of our current education reform environment.  From physical and mental health to support and respect from policy makers and administrators to workplace bullying and harassment to time and training for new curriculum demands to over testing to their general enthusiasm for their profession, teachers sent loud and clear warnings that there is a crisis in teachers’ working conditions.

It isn’t hard to imagine why.  For two 8 year Presidencies, we have, via legislation and policy, made increasing demands that our schools and school teachers raise their students to overcome inter-generational poverty with practically no additional help whatsoever and under the threat of punitive school and job level sanctions.  We have narrowed the curriculum so that non tested subjects play a smaller role in our children’s education.  We have a counter factual but extremely well funded by dark money campaign to sue away teachers’ modest workplace protections and weaken their unions.  We have state after state in the Union insisting on using value added modeling of student standardized test scores for teacher evaluation and retention despite the long known fundamental flaws with that approach.  We have prominent governors of both major political parties declaring open warfare on teachers and calling public education a “monopoly” that needs to be broken up or going on national cable news to declare that the “national teachers union” needs a “punch in the face.”

Can I say for certain that there is a causal link between these phenomena and the growing claims of a teacher shortage? Not at this time.  But the possibility did not escape journalist David Sirota:

What is especially worrying is how this time, talk of a teacher shortage could potentially become very long term unless we pivot quickly on school policy.  We have had more a full generation of students K-12 who have grown up in schools under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.  These students are the most tested and potentially test exhausted students in our nation’s history.  The BAT/AFT survey shows that their teachers may be facing unprecedented workplace expectations and stress at a time when school budgets are only beginning to recover, if at all, from cuts made during the Great Recession.  And no matter how professional and upbeat a manner teachers strive to portray for their students, nobody can keep that up every day without fail.

We know that the decision to become a teacher is historically one that is deeply tied to a student’s experiences in school itself. A prospective teacher learns to appreciate school and develops early, usually very incomplete, ideas and ideals about what it means to be a teacher from over 13,000 hours spent with teachers teaching from Kindergarten until the end of high school.  David Hansen explains teaching as vocational work, deeply rooted the individual seeking to become a teacher:

It implies that he or she knows something about him or herself, something important, valuable, worth acting upon.  One may have been drawn to teaching because of one’s own teachers or as a result of other outside influences. Still, the fact remains that now one has taken an interest oneself.  The idea of teaching “occupies” the person’s thoughts and imagination.  Again, this suggests that one conceives of teaching as more than a job, as more than a way to earn an income, although this consideration is obviously relevant.  Rather, one believes teaching to be potentially meaningful, as a the way to instantiate one’s desire to contribute to and engage with the world.

What kind of positive vocational sense can we expect young people considering teaching to develop in a school system beset by narrowed curricula and diminished teacher autonomy, by calls to eliminate poverty without any assistance whatsoever, by dishonest campaigns to break their unions, and by national politicians insulting them at every turn?

In 2006, David Berliner wrote eloquently on “Our Impoverished View of Education Reform” where he strongly questioned the “one way accountability” system set up via high stakes standardized testing:

All I am saying in this essay is that I am tired of acting like the schools, all alone, can do what is needed to help more people achieve higher levels of academic performance in our society. As Jean Anyon (1997, p. 168) put it “Attempting to fix inner city schools without fixing the city in which they are embedded is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door.”

To clean the air on both sides of the screen door we need to begin thinking about building a two-way system of accountability for contemporary America. The obligation that we educators have accepted to be accountable to our communities must become reciprocal. Our communities must also be accountable to those of us who work in the schools, and they can do this by creating social conditions for our nation that allow us to do our jobs well. Accountability is a two way process, it requires a principal and an agent. For too long schools have thought of themselves only as agents who must meet the demands of the principal, often the local community, state, or federal government. It is time for principals (and other school leaders) to become principals. That is, school people need to see communities as agents as well as principals and hold communities to standards that insure all our children are accorded the opportunities necessary for growing well.

Our consistent failure to heed Dr. Berliner’s warning may now be resulting in a genuine shortage of teachers, not merely of teachers being credentialed but of potential teachers in the pipeline eager to join the ranks.  Things need to change.  Now.

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Filed under Chris Christie, Funding, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching, Testing, Unions

Dear Senator Gillibrand: Public Schools Need Advocates, Not More Punishments

Dear Senator Gillibrand:

I am writing to you today wearing a number of different hats that I hope you will respect.  First, I am a constituent living in New York City who has been pleased to vote for you in the past.  Second, I am a life long educator, having studied education at our mutual alma mater, Dartmouth College and having taught at every level of school from junior high school to graduate school since 1993.  Third, I am a scholar of public education, having earned my doctorate in 2002 and currently serving as the director of secondary education preparation programs at Seton Hall University.  Fourth, and most importantly, I am the father of two public school students whose future education depends heavily upon the incentive systems that you and your fellow lawmakers vote upon in Washington, D.C.

I am writing to you for two reasons in particular.  As Jon Stewart noted on your recent appearance on The Daily Show, you have a reputation for working across the aisle on various issues and an ability to find common ground where few believe it exists.  I am also writing because you recently voted, along with almost all other Democrats, for Amendment 2241 to the “Every Child Achieves Act” introduced by Senators Coons, Murphy, Booker, Warren, and Durbin.  According to Senator Coons’ announcement of the amendment:

Specifically, the amendment would require state accountability systems to provide additional resources and support to local schools identified as any of the following:

  • In the bottom five percent of public schools as according to the state accountability system

  • A public high school where two-thirds or fewer students are graduating on time

  • Any public school where economically disadvantaged, disabled, minority, or English Language Learner students are not meeting state-set goals for achievement.

The sponsors asserted that the amendment was a “serious departure” from the No Child Left Behind accountability system as it mandated no federal consequences and left it to states to determine the interventions and consequences for schools that continue to struggle.  Despite these assurances, there remained significant reasons to oppose the amendment, reasons that nearly every member of the Democratic Caucus appeared to discount.

1. The amendment baked test and punish into the ESEA re-authorization.  While the announcement made a big deal about about states determining their accountability systems and interventions, the language of the amendment continued to emphasize test based systems and even echoed the “college and career readiness” language that is emblematic of the Common Core State Standards and their accompanying tests.  So while the amendment may have been presented as increasing state control of education and accountability, the actual language had significant emphasis on standardized testing, student growth measures, and statewide (standardized) measure(s) “which is consistent with progress toward readiness for postsecondary education or the workforce without the need for postsecondary remediation.”  Informed readers of the amendment recognize a continuation of the Common Core State Standards and annual testing with the state’s required to base their accountability upon such testing.

The emphasis on quantified measures is also present in the language requiring states to create interventions for schools in the “bottom 5 percent”.  While there is little doubt that many states have significant numbers of schools that struggle and which struggle for years at a time, the need to identify the “bottom 5 percent” each and every year is a kind of trap that means no matter how well a state manages to improve its schools, there will always be a portion of them labeled as failures in need of extra interventions.  Further, by emphasizing the quantity, the amendment would have guaranteed the further primacy of testing in accountability.

It may be well-intentioned for you and your Democratic colleagues to insist that states not neglect their most distressed schools and student populations, but it is well past time to move away from annual standardized testing.  We are almost a decade and a half in the No Child Left Behind era, and the data could not be clearer: high stakes testing and consequences do not work to substantively improve schools.  Kevin Welner and William Mathis of University of Colorado at Boulder brilliantly called for a sharp move away from test based accountability:

The ultimate question we should be asking isn’t whether test scores are good measures of learning, whether growth modeling captures what we want it to, or even whether test scores are increasing; it is whether the overall impact of the reform approach can improve or is improving education. Boosting test scores can, as we have all learned, be accomplished in lots of different ways, some of which focus on real learning but many of which do not. An incremental increase in reading or math scores means almost nothing, particularly if children’s engagement is decreased; if test-prep comes at a substantial cost to science, civics, and the arts; and if the focus of schooling as a whole shifts from learning to testing.

The way forward is not to tinker further with failed test-based accountability mechanisms; it is to learn from the best of our knowledge. We should not give up on reaching the Promised Land of equitable educational opportunities through substantially improved schooling, but we must study our maps and plan a wise path. This calls for a fundamental rebalancing —which requires a sustained, fair, adequate and equitable investment in all our children sufficient to provide them their educational birthright, and an evaluation system that focuses on the quality of the educational opportunities we provide to all of our children. As a nation, we made our greatest progress when we invested in all our children and in our society.

2. We don’t need annual testing of all children to find the problems we know are there.  Bruce Baker of Rutgers University makes it very clear that testing for accountability does not need to be a disruptive or annual affair.  Using sampling methods it is entirely possible for states to get a very accurate view of what is going on in their schools, and the insistence that we need to test everyone in every school every year, is based upon false premises of how our students are distributed and about how accurately testing can reflect upon individual classrooms.  Worse, we already know how tightly coupled test results and the demographic characteristics of a community are so that we likely do not need to test in order to know which schools are likely in need of more assistance.  My colleague, Dr. Chris Tienken of Seton Hall University, very neatly demonstrated this recently with a sophisticated regression analysis of different social capital indicators that accurately predicted test scores.

Standardized testing, then, is an endeavor that is best done is the least intrusive ways possible to keep one very broad eye on the community and to use the results to see if further, more detailed, analysis is necessary or not.  By attempting to retain them as a tool of high stakes accountability, Senate Democrats sought to maintain a lever which has failed to create significant results for an entire generation of students.

3. Resources matters — Democrats’ language on that was weak.  Just as we know that schools with high percentages of students in poverty indicate schools likely to struggle, we also know that our communities with poor families tend to have large percentages of them and lack community resources as well.  The language of the amendment called for states to identify struggling schools and to ensure “identified schools have access to resources, such as adequate facilities, funding, and technology” but the federal role in assisting this remains weak even as the federal government makes requirements upon states and municipalities.  While the amendment had references to many grant programs, it lay primary responsibility with the states while leaving one of the core inequalities in American education intact: how we fund schools and distribute resources.

Local funding by property taxation is an inherently unequal form of funding, and we rely upon state aid to provide additional funding, aid that is inadequate to the task.  Consider our home state of New York.  Commissioner Elia has identified 144 schools statewide that are struggling or persistently struggling as measured by state test scores.  These include schools in Albany, Buffalo, Hempstead, Mount Vernon, New York City, Rochester, Utica, and Yonkers.  It should come as no surprise that all of these districts are on the list of our most underfunded high need school districts in the state.  Based on the state’s own, inadequate, foundational aid formula, Hempstead should be getting $6,426 per pupil MORE this year than it is getting, and such accounting trickery has been played on every district in the state for years.

If the federal government were truly interested in helping our schools by holding states accountable, it would do better to focus upon how the different 50 states raise and distribute funds to our highest needs schools.

4. Test based accountability misses the real issues.  We can test and test and test some more.  We can gather as much data from those tests as we like.  But they will never tell us the underlying reasons for the gaps in test performance among our population.  Assuming that the tests are measuring worthwhile skills and knowledge, the existence of a gap in test measured performance tells us nothing about why it exists.  At its best, testing gives us an idea of where to examine more closely, but when raising the test score become a paramount concern for schools and districts, the consequences are not inherently desirable.

Can the federal government assist states and municipalities in the pursuit of an equitable education for all?  Certainly, but it would mean shifting the focus to resources and funding and away from test scores.  For example, the federal government could finally fulfill its promise of providing 40% of the cost to implement the Individuals With Disabilities in Education Act which it has never done.  The federal government could listen to its own data that suggests our nation’s schools need $197 billion in capital improvements and that a full quarter of schools with more than half of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch are in either fair or poor condition.  The federal government could focus improvement efforts on questions of teacher retention in our most struggling schools which, contrary to the rhetoric of those opposing teacher tenure, is a much greater problem than teachers staying too long.

The federal government could also learn from history.  After 14 years of testing and punishment, some tiny gains in the National Assessment of Educational Progress can be seen, but those gains are dwarfed by the closing of the student achievement gap measured through the 1970s and into the early 1980s:13 year old math NAEP

As you can see, from 1973 until 1986, the gap between White and Black 13 year-olds in mathematics shrank by 22 percentage points, at which point it began to rise again, slowly over the next decade, then decreased slightly after the passage of NCLB but at nowhere near the rate we saw from 1978 until 1986.  What explains this?  There are, of course, many possible reasons, but one that stands out in policy is that by the early 1980s we largely abandoned efforts to integrate our schools and to integrate our communities via fair housing policies.  Since the 1980s, our communities have become even more segregated by income levels, and our schools have re-segregated as well so that today, a typical African American student in 2007 attended a school where 59% of his peers were low income, up from 43% in 1989.

For almost 4 decades we have increasingly concentrated children with very great needs within communities that struggle to provide basic services and in schools that are consistently deprived to the resources and personnel they need to give the children in their care what they need to thrive. We do not need more federal accountability measures of this.  We require action aimed at the opportunity gap.

You have a deserved reputation for fairness and for finding ways to work with colleagues when others prefer to fight.  I challenge you to research these issues and bring them to your fellow lawmakers in bipartisan fashion.  I challenge to craft a federal education policy that emphasizes support and growth over test and punish. Use federal leverage with states to make sure state aid to local schools is up to their needs.  Propose the full funding of IDEA for the first time in its history.  Challenge colleagues to invest in the capital improvement needed so our children learn in buildings that are well equipped and safe.  Find federal resources that will help urban schools with recruitment, development, and retention of teachers.

And recognize that threatening schools with standardized test results cannot overcome our society-wide abandonment of integrated schools and communities.  Our public schools need advocates in Washington, not an entire caucus ready to reassert policies that distort education’s focus and ignore the real funding needs of our children’s schools.

Sincerely,

Daniel Katz, Ph.D.

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Filed under Common Core, Funding, NCLB, politics, Testing

Truthiness and Lack of Consequences

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wants his education tax credit, which critics have identified as a backdoor voucher plan for private and parochial schools, and he wants it so badly that sources in Albany are saying he is trying to entice hesitant Democrats by tying strengthened rent regulations to passage of the credit.  This is a familiar tactic for Governor Cuomo who originally tied the tax credit together with the Dream Act and whose budget negotiation stance insisted that any increase in state aid for public schools had to be connected to his test-centric teacher evaluation plans.

Now, in the waning days of the legislative session, the Governor is charging hard at Assembly Democrats who have not signed on to his plan for the education tax credit.  The complex plan, which is being advertised as a boon for schools and struggling families, is a pool of $150 million with different set asides for getting money to different constituencies.  If enacted as proposed, the bill will provide $50 million in tax credits for donors to scholarship funds for low and middle income attendees at private and parochial schools, and it provides $20 million in credits for donations to public schools.  Donors could reduce their tax liability by 75% of their donations up to a full million dollars. Under the Governor’s proposal, another pool of $70 million will be set aside for credits to families who make up to $60,000 a year to help offset tuition at private and parochial schools for a total of $500 per family.  The Governor has also proposed a pool of $10 million for teachers at fully public schools and at charter schools to make up for out of pocket expenses for classroom supplies.  The state Senate, controlled by the Republican caucus, has passed its own version of the legislation.

Tax credits are different from tax deductions.  Deductions reduce your taxable income while credits typically are a dollar for dollar reduction in your total tax liability.  So while under the old charitable tax deduction available for donations to scholarship funds, a family donating $1 million could take a maximum deduction of $22,000 on state taxes, under the new tax credit, they could reduce that tax liability by $750,000.  This basically means that for a million dollar private donation to a scholarship fund for children attending private and parochial schools, the state will pay $750,000 of that by relieving the donor of that amount of his or her tax burden.  Although proponents insist that most recipients of the scholarships will be low and middle income, the proposal allows for scholarship money to go to families making as much as $300,000 a year.  The $500 a family credit is limited to families making less than $60,000 a year, but again, as a tax credit, this is basically a direct transfer of taxpayer money to a private or parochial school.  The teacher benefit is set at $200 per teacher.

Let’s be absolutely clear: a donation of a million dollars will be subsidized by tax payers to the tune of $750,000 for scholarships that might go to people earning $300,000 annually while genuinely needy families will get a $500 coupon for tuition (which is about 1/24 the average cost of tuition at a Catholic school in the United States) and teachers will get slightly less than the cost of 10 packs of multi-colored Sharpies.

At the end of the day, no matter what it is called, the bill is a complex transfer of public money to private hands with little guarantee that genuinely helpful sums of money will ever make it to genuinely needy families.

This is the proposal aggressively pushed by a governor who is billions of dollars behind the state’s constitutional obligation to fund public schools equitably, who continues to use accounting tricks to cheat school districts out of millions of dollars owed under the already inadequate funding in the state budget, who has restricted districts from increasing revenue locally without a super-majority, and then has the nerve to blame strangled school districts for not raising test scores.

If you are public education advocate on social media, you have probably seen some of the aggressive “truthiness” that has been masquerading as grassroots advocacy on this issue.  This is from Twitter:

I find this tweet to be emblematic of the past 30 plus years of claiming you can get something for nothing from advocates who want to funnel as much of our national commons into private hands as possible.  The $20 million in tax credits for  public education purposes would fund donations for public schools covering barely 1/2 of 1% of the over FIVE BILLION in unfunded state aid to schools left from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity Settlement.  And in order to get THAT, the public has to agree to tax credits that send $50 million in tax dollars to private and religious foundations and another $70 million that will go in $500 increments to private and parochial schools as “credits” that act as vouchers.  And itty bitty vouchers at that.

This is not a “tax free” way to increase spending on education, and the claim that this increases education spending without raising taxes is pure “truthiness”. This is taking a chunk of our current tax pool and divvying it up 80% into private hands.  Some of those hands may be extremely worthwhile and deserving of the generous support of their wealthy patrons.  But they are also not accountable to the same public purposes and oversight as our fully public schools, and many of them are religious organizations that are now going to be getting public funding.  By making these tax credits instead of tax deductions, Governor Cuomo has essentially crafted a proposal whose most generous subsidies amount to the very wealthy directing how their tax dollars get spent.  It is another example of political donor class writing themselves out of the rules by which everyone else lives.

Wavering Democrats in the Assembly should hold firm.  The precedent of this plan is too radical to approve.

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Filed under Funding, politics, schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

None. Zip. Nada. Bupkas.

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

It doesn’t work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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