Tag Archives: Arne Duncan

Dear Hillary – 2015 Version

Dear Secretary Clinton:

You have been a declared candidate for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States since April of this year. While your campaign for the nomination is quite new, many in the press treat your eventual victory as fait accompli, and have turned their attention to the growing Smorgasbord of candidates on the Republican side of the contest. Given the nature of Presidential politics today, this is probably good news for you as potential rivals for the Oval Office will now spend months of news cycles savaging each other and weakening the eventual Republican nominee.

It also gives you time to hone positions and messages while the national press endlessly opines on which Republican can win over the Tea Party and major donors simultaneously. I have a few modest proposals on education.

You enter this contest with some disadvantages on national education policy.  Having been a national figure for nearly a quarter century, you have spoken often, and often quite well, on the promise of public education and how we should support it.  However, your public career is also closely associated with neoliberal influences within the Democratic Party, and in education policy, that influence is typified by the John Podesta founded Center for American Progress which is a proponent of standards, standardized testing, evaluating teachers via standardized tests, expanding charter schools that take public money but are privately managed, and eliminating or significantly changing teacher workplace protections. Lately, a number of people have been circulating the 18 page missive you were sent in 1992 by Marc S. Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy which details a comprehensive and far more centrally controlled vision of education with now familiar emphasis on standards creating a “seamless system of unending skill development.”  Dubbed the “Dear Hillary” letter, Mr. Tucker’s vision is seen by many as a precursor of the current system of education “reform” which uses standards and testing to reduce variance among states, constantly talks about “college and career readiness” and making students meet nationally derived standards, holds teachers “accountable” to all students meeting standards, and reduces traditional governance and union influence to create “choice”.

Whether or not Mr. Tucker’s letter actually began the process to the 2015 school reform landscape or not isn’t germane to the fact that many connect his letter to you and ascribe its agenda to your candidacy.  This may be quite unfair, but it is also a reality in the national school reform debate into which you have entered as a candidate.  You must understand the degree to which we face a crisis in confidence among teachers and parents that has been growing for the past 14 years and which shows no signs of dying down by the general election campaign next year.  After years of struggling with the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, teachers had hoped that President Obama’s campaign rhetoric would result in recognition that unrealistic expectations and heavy emphasis on test-based accountability had damaged schools and teaching.  Instead, the new administration used the promise of funding and of waivers from NCLB’s most punishing provisions to rush the Common Core standards into adoption across the country and, far from reducing the influence of standardized, to use tests to evaluate teachers.  At the same time, a coordinated effort is underway across the country to challenge teachers’ workplace protections and to use campaign donations to influence politicians to join the fight against teachers’ unions and against traditional public schools.

Madame Secretary, you enter the campaign for the Presidency at a time when teacher morale has dropped precipitously, with those saying they are “highly satisfied” at work falling by 30 percentage points in the last six years.  The federal role in education will play a part in the upcoming election, and an unusual mix of our body politic opposes various aspects of that role for various reasons.  It would be a grievous mistake on your part to misread the criticism as solely the work of right wing activists or, as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has done, the province of suburbanite mothers offended by the notion that their children are not brilliant. Among those opposed to or concerned with the past decade and a half of education reform are scholars warning that key elements of the reform agenda have little basis in research, parental and advocacy groups concerned about the detrimental influence of reform on curriculum, schools, and children, and a slowly increasing presence in civil rights and community justice groups recognizing that reform is tearing the heart out of communities and threatening equity without involving stakeholders in the process at all.

Your path to the nomination and to the Presidency probably does not require you to listen to these constituencies because deeply connected and extremely influential donors are tied to the reform movement, but your ability, if elected, to hit a “reset” button on our national education debate and to set a course forward that honors all stakeholders in our national education commons does require it. With respect, I would like to offer my own set of priorities for you to consider as you seek office, and I promise that it is briefer than Mr. Tucker’s.

Let states stay or go from the Common Core State Standards as they see fit.  Recently, you spoke with some dismay about how a “bipartisan” agreement to raise educational standards has now become political.  That take on the CCSS situation assumes that there was nothing political about the standards to begin with, and there I must disagree.  It is true that the National Governors Association agreed to take on the proposal to write a set of common standards and did so without falling along typical party lines.  But there are several aspects about the CCSS that were political from the very beginning and which are not made apolitical simply because they were not partisan.  First, the assumption that American education is in deep crisis and that we are “falling behind” other nations is a deeply political assumption that rests on a significant cherry picking of the available data and by concentrating on the worst possible reading of that data.  The “failure narrative” has been a central player in our education debate since the Reagan Administration released A Nation at Risk in 1983, but its underlying assumptions have been problematic from the beginning.  David Berliner and Gene Glass make it clear that the failure narrative is a deliberate lie that proposes that our entire school system is in crisis when when we have very specific problems with some of our schools and those problems are tightly coupled with concentrated poverty in communities.  The premise that we MUST have common standards if we are to not “fall behind” other nations is a premise steeped in a political agenda to require a massive change in how we administer one of the core institutions of our democracy.

Further, while the organizations that initiated the CCSS may have cut across political lines, politics at the federal level was essential to having 43 states and the District of Columbia adopt them.  When the Obama administration came into office, the CCSS project, already enjoying massive support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, received boosts from the Race to the Top program and offers of waivers from certain NCLB provisions.  How far would the Common Core State Standards have gone without these federal enticements? We will never know, but it is safe to assume that their adoption was given considerable velocity by these incentives which is staggering when you realize that the standards were proposed, allegedly researched, written, signed off on by various committees, and adopted in over 40 states in less than 4 years.  Advertising and political campaigns move that quickly — careful, deliberate, research-based overhauls to K-12 standards in English and mathematics do not, especially if they follow widely accepted processes for including a wide array of stakeholders and maximizing transparency.

How free are states to leave the the “state led” Common Core effort?  That’s an open question. Virginia, for example, never adopted the CCSS, and they have an NCLB waiver from Secretary Duncan’s DOE.  Washington state, however, lost its waiver for not being quick enough to implement another element of education reform — adding student growth on standardized tests to its teacher evaluation system.  How would the current USDOE respond to a state trying to back out of the Common Core?  I do not know, but I do know that if the standards have actual educative value, and many people sincerely believe that they do, then the federal leverage that has been used to put them in place, needs to be removed so that proponents and opponents can have the open and honest debate about common standards that never took place.  States should develop plans for careful implementation and development if they want to stay on board, and time must be given for the development of quality material aligned with the standards.  And states should be feel free to drop the CCSS and take a “wait and see” approach to study how other states’ implementation efforts are going.

But if you, as a candidate, like what you see in the Common Core, then your best way to get them unpoliticized is to recognize the politics that went into their development and adoption, and to give states absolute assurance that they can take their time in making them work or abandon them without consequence.

Reject teacher evaluations based upon student growth models.  The appeal of student growth models is obvious.  Using student testing data, growth models promise to free teacher evaluation from excessive subjectivity and local politics by using sophisticated statistical tools to isolate teachers’ input into the variation among student scores and properly rank teachers by their effectiveness.  Such a tool promises to leverage the power of data into making certain adults are accountable for the most crucial work of school — helping students reach their full potential.

Unfortunately, they don’t work.

Value added models (VAMs) and other related growth models are simply not up to the task of taking a snapshot of student performance in one year of school, completely isolating the teacher impact upon test scores, and producing a stable and reliable measure of teacher effectiveness.  The research body on this is growing and crystal clear: we should not be doing this, and by doing this we are only making it impossible for a teacher with an eye for survival to not teach to the test.

Despite this, Secretary Duncan has not only continued to support growth measures in teacher evaluation, he has proposed measuring the “effectiveness” of teacher preparation programs by the value added measures of their graduates.  In New York State, Governor Andrew Cuomo pushed for and got a revised teacher evaluation system where half of teacher effectiveness ratings are tied to standardized test scores.

If you want to restore balance and sanity to the education reform debate, you will pledge to appoint a Department of Education that backs off of growth measures and actually listens to the evidence that we do not have either the tests or the statistical tools to make this work, and that the consequences in the form of narrowed curricula and increasing the pressure associated with testing are unacceptable.

Praise innovation in education — but only from people telling the truth. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel praised the Noble Charter School network for having found the “secret sauce” for improving academic performance — based on the schools’ test scores.  It turns out that an ingredient in that sauce is a system of cash fines for even small infractions to its strict disciplinary code, a practice that landed one unemployed single mother with a bill for $3000.

When the idea of a charter schools was first proposed to provide a system of small and innovative schools who would work with the most difficult children and feed their ideas to the system as a whole, it is doubtful that anyone expected schools that would turn its disciplinary code into a revenue stream, but the charter sector is sadly rife with schools claiming superior results while engaging in deceptive practices.  The “no excuses” brand of charters, to which Noble belongs, is especially guilty of this as they continuously compare their test scores to fully public schools in their districts, but then take their population of students, already skimmed via complex application processes for their lotteries, and further trim them with practices aimed at driving away students whose needs they refuse to accommodate.  Matthew Sprowal of New York City found this out when he won a lottery seat at Eva Mokowitz’s Success Academy but was quickly subjected to disciplinary practices that had the Kindergartener regularly throwing up and asking his mother if he would be “fired” from school.  His is not an isolated case in the network that is known for extremely strict discipline and an emphasis on test preparation that can overwhelm the rest of the curriculum.  They are hardly alone in this.  Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University took a humorous look at the Uncommon Network school in Newark, New Jersey, North Star Academy, and he found that their claims of getting superior results from the same population of children as the district is completely deceptive.  It turns out that North Star has many fewer students who qualify for free lunch, they have half the population of students with disabilities and those they have are almost all low cost – with zero students with autism, emotional disturbance, or cognitive disabilities.  Even more shocking are the indications that those numbers may not simply represent a population that entered the lottery for admission, but it may be the result of selective attrition.  Historically, 50% of North Star student cohorts leave the school between 5th and 12th grade, and that goes up to 60% for African American boys in the school.

You must remember that these are students whose families sought out the school in the first place.

While a few advocates of the no excuses brand of schools admit that this kind of attrition is a feature rather than a bug, the general response from the sector is denial and silence.  This is not innovation.  It is a) the conflation of test scores with actual achievement and learning; b) the use of unethical disciplinary practices to induce an already self selected population to further self select; c) a distorted curriculum emphasizing test scores and specific training for standardized test.  It is likely that many of the surviving students do get a good education overall, but their school leaders should not try to favorably compare themselves to district schools, especially when their model of schooling requires them to have full public schools where students they drive away end up.  For an added insight, consider how KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg struggled to find an adequate reason why he doesn’t send his own children to the school network that he established.

With over 6000 charter schools across the country, I am sure your campaign can find ones that genuinely innovate on behalf of children who have not been well served by their district schools and which take seriously the idea that charter schools are there to demonstrate innovative practices. (Dr. Julian Vasquez-Heilig has noted Making Waves and University of Texas Elementary as examples). Those schools do not have massive public relations campaigns, but if you are looking to praise schools outside the mainstream system, you should find them, and avoid the “no excuses” brands that routinely lie about their practices and the meaning of their results.

Money matters.  Governor Andrew Cuomo likes to opine that money is not an issue in New York State because of the size of the education budget.  That’s easy for him to say as his term in office has been an ongoing assault on state aid to education and a steadfast refusal to fund the Campaign for Fiscal Settlement settlement from 2007.  Governor Cuomo, who has never proposed an education budget that comes close to finding the still missing education aid, put in a cap on property taxes that limits municipalities from increasing local revenue, and continues to use the Gap Elimination Adjustment to remove promised aid to localities to the tune of nearly $3.1 million per district per year.  The resulting financial shenanigans leave many districts shorted thousands of dollars per pupil per year below the state’s already inadequate and unequal funding promises.

While the federal government funds only a small percent of local educational expenditures, there are promises you can make that will help districts cope with the fact that we fund education in this country by local property values and this takes a significant toll upon school districts with higher concentrations of poverty and devalued property. For example, when the federal government passed P.L. 94-142 in 1975, Congress promised that it would provide money that would cover 40% of the costs to districts for giving full services to children with disabilities.  Districts, schools, and teachers rose to that challenge and the percentage of children receiving special education services rose from 4.3% of students in the 1960s to 11.4% in 1989.  Congress did not, and it has never funded the federal disability law above 20% of costs to districts.

Our schools are estimated to need over $197 billion in infrastructure repairs and investments according to a study by the Institute of Education Sciences, and that figure is estimated at over $254 billion by the American Federation of Teachers.  The federal government provides grants for schools that offer wraparound services, a continuum of community based services frequently lacking in communities with deep poverty.  Such grants could be expanded and more funding added to Title I in order to support such schools and the efforts they undertake for our least served students.  Schools need additional funding to work on class size reductions which have strong support as means to improve academic achievement especially among disadvantaged students.  In fact, most changes that would significantly improve education for the disadvantaged students in our schools require funding increases, but most state are still funding education below 2008 levels.

President Obama used promises of federal funding to wedge in highly distorting education policies.  You should promise education funding to build capacity and growth.

Your money matters too.  In an age when unprecedented money is flowing into politics at every level, it is hard for any candidate to expressly shut off any source of cash, but if you want to be a candidate for public education and the children served by it, you must.  Consider the case of “Democrats for Education Reform (DFER)” and its companion organization “Education Reform Now (ERN).”  While these organizations influence and donate to Democratic candidates for office, both their funding and their intent are not rooted in the Democratic Party.  One of DFER’s principal founders is hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson, who described the rationale for his group’s name this way:

The real problem, politically, was not the Republican party, it was the Democratic party. So it dawned on us, over the course of six months or a year, that it had to be an inside job. The main obstacle to education reform was moving the Democratic party, and it had to be Democrats who did it, it had to be an inside job. So that was the thesis behind the organization. And the name – and the name was critical – we get a lot of flack for the name. You know, “Why are you Democrats for education reform? That’s very exclusionary. I mean, certainly there are Republicans in favor of education reform.” And we said, “We agree.” In fact, our natural allies, in many cases, are Republicans on this crusade, but the problem is not Republicans. We don’t need to convert the Republican party to our point of view…

DFER and ERN receive massive financial support from a cast of characters who are not traditional backers of Democrats: The Walton Family Foundation, Rupert Murdoch, Rex Sinquefield.  The causes they support include Koch funded campaigns against unions, vouchers, and privatization of education via the growth of privately managed charter school chains. If you want to see the influence of this kind of funding, look no further than Andrew Cuomo, who has gotten over $65,000 from ERN since 2010 and whose devotion to the cycle of using test scores as the only measure that matters, labeling schools as failing, closing schools, and turning them over to privately managed charters is without equal. This is hardly isolated to DFER,as a range of organizations funded by billionaires seek heavy influence over educational policy in New York. This fundamentally anti-democratic campaign by the hedge fund sector is not based on philanthropy as advertised as they have been figuring out ways to monetize support for charter schools for some time now, and this phenomenon is rampant in the charter sector nationwide.  Other aspects of today’s reforms generate massive revenue streams for publishing and testing giants like Pearson, and Rupert Murdoch himself called K-12 education a “$500 billion sector…that is waiting desperately to be transformed…” by technology.

These potential donors to your campaign are not in education reform because they primarily want to do good.  They are in it because they want to do well, and if you take their cash, you will be as bought and as compromised as Andrew Cuomo, Rahm Emanual, and President Obama.  You are perhaps better situated than any candidate in memory to forgo any single source of funding in favor of taking a stand.

Stand with our teachers. While the emphasis on testing and evaluating teachers with testing threatens our national teaching corps, a parallel campaign exists to remove teachers of the job protections and make it vastly easy to fire them at will. This campaign relies upon misunderstanding of what tenure is and expressly misrepresents the facts to the national media.  Worse, it thoroughly misses a far greater problem in our schools that serve high concentrations of disadvantaged students.  Far from being staffed with stereotypically jaded veterans uninterested in doing their jobs, our schools with high concentrations of children in poverty, are far more likely to have high numbers of first year teachers when compared to the suburban counterparts. Research shows that young teachers who leave such schools most frequently cite aspects of their working conditions – lack of support from administration, insufficient resources, no time to collaborate with co-workers – as the reasons why they leave.

Removing tenure from those teachers does absolutely nothing to stabilize the faculty in our most difficult schools, and it largely guarantees that such schools will continue to have a temporary workforce whose members never reach their full effectiveness on the job.  Further, removal of tenure protection disallows teachers who need to confront their administration on behalf of their students from doing so; it destroys teachers’ abilities to act as good stewards of their students.

Somehow, these facts do not stop the likes of Campbell Brown from framing the anti-tenure campaign as being for the “rights of students,” but the only logical conclusion from the misplaced effort is that they want teaching to become a far more temporary “career” than it currently is.  Teachers, having their effectiveness rated by invalid statistical measures, will be much more easily fired without the protections of tenure.  A perpetually young and more easily replaced teaching workforce will be both cheaper and easier to manage — a model embraced by the no excuses charter schools favored by many in today’s reform effort.  That breaking teachers’ union protections would also mean breaking the last large middle class unions in the country cannot be a coincidence either.

This is no way to build a profession based upon expertise and a sense of efficacy on behalf of our children.  Do not mince words on this.  Stand with our teachers.

It’s still the economy. Today’s education reform rhetoric calls upon us to adopt massively disruptive changes to how we deliver instruction, how we manage and administer public education for the entire country, and how we conceive of teaching as a profession.  The rationale given for this is very attractive, but it is entirely deceptive.  While reformers are correct that millions of American children, mostly minority, attend schools with low achievement records as measured by standardized tests, and that a great many of those children will not have realistic opportunities to pursue higher education and escape inter-generational poverty, reformers place nearly the entire requirement to lift those children upon their public schools and teachers. The reality is that while an education is likely to play a part in any personal narrative of financial success in America, there have to be genuine economic opportunities on the other side of that education for that narrative to come to fruition.

In 2015, this does not look likely without fundamental realignments in our economic and taxation policies that today’s reformers, backed and financed by billionaires, are loathe to discuss.  For most of the past 30 years, our nation’s workers have increased their productivity and created vast amounts of wealth without seeing any significant increases in their own wages.  The skewing of gains in wealth is so severe that the top 10% of earners currently make more than half of all the wages earned in the country. Will more college graduates make more opportunity?  That seems doubtful when you take into account that the wage benefit for going to college has increased only because wages for those with no college degree have collapsed since the early 1980s.  Even in the much touted STEM fields, entry level wages for qualified college graduates have remained flat for more than a decade.  If there is a significant skills shortage in the American workforce, basic labor economics cannot detect it.  I’ve argued this for several years, and this observation was recently affirmed by Paul Krugman at The New York Times:

Furthermore, there’s no evidence that a skills gap is holding back employment. After all, if businesses were desperate for workers with certain skills, they would presumably be offering premium wages to attract such workers. So where are these fortunate professions? You can find some examples here and there. Interestingly, some of the biggest recent wage gains are for skilled manual labor — sewing machine operators, boilermakers — as some manufacturing production moves back to America. But the notion that highly skilled workers are generally in demand is just false.

Finally, while the education/inequality story may once have seemed plausible, it hasn’t tracked reality for a long time. “The wages of the highest-skilled and highest-paid individuals have continued to increase steadily,” the Hamilton Project says. Actually, the inflation-adjusted earnings of highly educated Americans have gone nowhere since the late 1990s.

Our workforce today has more education than at any point in American history, but if that is still not enough, the labor market has apparently abandoned fundamental supply and demand.

Now one thing is absolutely clear on the education side of the equation.  Opportunity to gain a strong basic education and to pursue higher education is not equitably distributed, mostly to the detriment of minority children and the rural poor.  Further, education will play a likely role in those children’s success, but we cannot refuse to change anything about our economic assumptions and call upon schools to do all of the lifting out of poverty for children and families, especially at a time when the middle class is shrinking rapidly even as the population’s total education has increased. Your campaign can call for improvement to primary and secondary education, it can address soaring costs for higher education, and it can demand more from our nation’s teachers.  However, if it makes these demands absent any serious examination of our structural inequalities that prevent significant economic opportunities from reaching the vast majority of our children, then it will simply be more of what we have seen since 1983: dire rhetoric, false premises, testing, punishment, turning our public schools over to private operators and to a hidden investor class making money off of the system.

The next time the Whitney Tilsons of our education debate approach you for support of their programs in return for campaign cash, demand to know what they will promise to do to actually be “job creators” whose workers do not require public assistance simply to survive.  Demand to know what investments in our decaying infrastructure they will support via higher taxes on themselves.  Demand to know how they will compensate their workers for the increasing profitability of their ventures that depends upon labor.  Demand to know how they will support an economy that provides actual mobility for the rest of society rather than simply supporting their Gilded Age lifestyles. Demand to know how they will support the right of labor to organize and collectively bargain for wages and benefits, the decline of which accounts for up to a third of our increasing inequality.

I know many teachers, faculty, and school administrators who are willing to do their part for a better and more equitable future for our nation’s youth.  It is time for a national candidate to demand that education reform’s financial backers, who are reaping gains by privatizing our schools, do the same.

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Filed under Activism, charter schools, Corruption, DFER, Funding, Gates Foundation, NCLB, schools, Social Justice

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

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

Mercy.

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

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

Mercy.

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

Mercy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t count on it.

Arne Duncan is terribly concerned about all this over testing

Arne Duncan is terribly concerned about all this over testing

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

Was Arne Duncan Ever a Child?

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

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

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

Where to start?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These-arent-the-droids

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saving Mr. Data

I am beginning to think that enthusiasts of standardized testing and data in education accountability are feeling nervous these days.  Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee is the new chair of the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, and he has set about the long overdue process of renewing and/or revising the No Child Left Behind Act which required annual testing of all students in every state.  The outcome of that process and of the House’s parallel bill which left committee already and which failed to adopt a Democratic sponsored amendment to require states to adopt “college and career ready standards” and to use standardized test results in accountability systems, will play a significant role in the current policy environment that is best summarized as “test and punish”.

However, it is not just a Republican controlled Congress that is threatening federal mandates for universal and annual standardized testing.  An unusual coalition of small government conservatives and anti-testing progressives have joined with growing numbers of parents concerned with how test based accountability is consuming their children’s education.  The once unthinkable is now being thought out loud and in the open — Congress could reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act without provisions requiring that all states test all students in all grades.

This would, obviously, be a blow to a cornerstone provision of NCLB that once enjoyed bipartisan support as a necessary measure to ensure that states did not try to duck being accountable for all students.  It would also throw a huge monkey-wrench into favored policies of the Obama administration promoted by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. While the Common Core State Standards might survive in some form without annual standardized testing, the testing consortia, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium (SBAC), began their work with the support of federal grants almost as soon as the standards were being adopted thanks to financial support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and federal incentives from the Race to the Top grant program.  If annual testing requirements were scrapped by Congress, it is an open question how many states would keep Common Core and stay with the testing programs created for it.  Another policy threatened by removing annual testing requirements is the assessment of teachers by the test scores of their students.  Despite wide criticism from the research community, Secretary Duncan remains firmly committed to tying teacher evaluations to students’ annual progress on standardized examinations, and without annual examinations of all students, you cannot run their results through discredited and unstable statistical models to determine if teachers deserve their jobs.

So defenders of annual testing have work to do in public if they are going to save their baby,

One such recent effort appeared in the New York Times on February 6th. Penned by Chad Aldeman, a partner at Bellwether Education and former adviser to Secretary Duncan’s Department of Education, it is simply titled “In Defense of Annual Testing”, and it lays out what are becoming familiar efforts to shore up presumably left leaning support for keeping NCLB’s annual testing requirements.  These are not arguments that should be casually dismissed, and they have the moral authority of some of the nation’s most distinguished civil rights organizations that originally signed on for the accountability measures in NCLB when it passed and who have reiterated their support.

They are, however, arguments that don’t stand up to serious scrutiny.

Aldeman opens with a brief assertion of a now familiar claim:

But annual testing has tremendous value. It lets schools follow students’ progress closely, and it allows for measurement of how much students learn and grow over time, not just where they are in a single moment.

This claim suggests that without ANNUAL standardized testing of ALL students then we will not know how INDIVIDUAL students are progressing through school.  It has echoes in Secretary Duncan’s anecdote of how he tutored a great kid in his youth who had been tricked into thinking he was progressing towards college but who was barely reading at a third grade level.  According to Secretary Duncan’s telling, this young man was the proverbial “child left behind” for whose education nobody had ever taken any real responsibility.  Annual testing was the only effective means to catch how he was being poorly served and demand that someone do something about it, and Secretary Duncan even presented annual testing of all students as a parental tool: “Will we work together to ensure every parent’s right to know every year how much progress her child is making in school? Or is that optional?”

The problem is that this line of thinking shows a staggering lack of imagination.

As an argument, it fails to acknowledge that there are many other, and far more interesting, points of data that can be used by teachers, parents, and schools to keep far more compelling tabs on student progress throughout the year.  Locally designed and implemented ongoing assessments such as portfolios and project based learning can provide teachers with ongoing and meaningful insights into how children are learning, and report cards can be reformed to provide parents and guardians with far more nuanced information.

It is even possible to use externally designed assessments in more interesting ways that help inform teachers, students, and parents in real time.  Bruce Baker of Rutgers University notes that computer-based “adaptive assessments” given individually and with no stakes attached can be the basis of a system of formative assessment that gives immediate feedback to teachers about student progress that can be used to craft individual learning plans for those who struggle.  In coordination with portfolios and project based learning (and with full disclosure of how they use data and substantial privacy safeguards), computer based assessments could become a valuable tool based on data.  Dr. Baker further notes such data-driven and formative assessments would be vastly more useful than mass administered tests whose results are distributed months after the fact when students have already moved on to their next grade levels.

Aldeman dedicates most of his Times piece, however, on the belief that NOT testing every child in every year will allow states and localities to wiggle out from being accountable to all students all the time:

The grade-span approach would eviscerate the ability to look at particular groups of students within schools. Instead of having multiple grades over which schools could compile results, each school would be held responsible only for the performance of students in a single grade. Not only would this lower the quality of the data, but it would also raise the stakes of the tests: If you think the stakes are too high now, imagine being a fifth grader in a school where your score determines the results of the entire school.

Worst of all, under this approach, far fewer schools would be on the hook for paying attention to historically disadvantaged groups of students. A school with 10 Hispanic students in each grade would no longer be held accountable for whether those students were making sufficient progress, because the 10 fifth graders wouldn’t be enough to count as a meaningful population size.

Let me state that as a liberal with an eye for history, this argument is certainly intriguing.  We are a nation that only 12 years before my birth required the National Guard to let nine African American students attend a high school ordered to desegregate.  In 1969, the year I was born, the Supreme Court issued a ruling calling for Southern states to cease delays in desegregating their schools — a full 15 years after Brown v. Board found such arrangements unconstitutional.  Federal legislation and federal court cases were also instrumental in holding states and municipalities responsible for ending gender discrimination, for providing students with disabilities access to an education, and for providing support for students learning English.  It is no doubt this record of positive intervention at the federal level and of state delays in implementing equality of opportunity that motivated civil rights groups to endorse annual testing in NCLB and to stand with it today.

That does not change that such testing is unnecessary, is unacceptably disruptive to learning, and is narrowing curricula nationwide.

Mr. Aldeman is suggesting that eliminating annual testing will mean huge swaths of children will be hidden from the test and that the test stakes will be raised enormously with only exam being used.  The stakes argument hinges on a mistaken impression of what the exams say and what should be done with the data they produce.  For the stakes on gradespan testing to be even higher than they are today, one has to assume that such testing is used not only to monitor the education system but also to actively punish schools with low test results.  While few would argue that schools with poor results should be permitted to languish, the kinds of punitive measures embodied in NCLB are not a necessary result of monitoring student test scores.  Under the leadership of Superintendent Tony Alvarado, New York City’s Community District 2 implemented a complex and interconnect culture of reform that included standards and assessments.  However, data from the assessments were used to monitor how schools in the district were doing and to allocate resources for improvement and innovation where they were most needed and with the constant goal of instructional improvement.  Again, Dr. Baker of Rutgers makes a salient observation:

Here’s the really important part, which also relates to my thermometer example above. The testing measures themselves ARE NOT THE ACTIONABLE INFORMATION. Testing provides information on symptoms, not causes or underlying processes. It is pure folly to look at low test scores for a given institution, and follow up with an action plan to “improve test scores,” or close the school if/when test scores don’t improve, without ever taking stock of the potential causes behind the low test scores. TEST SCORES ARE SYMPTOMS, NOT CAUSES, NOT ACTIONABLE IN AND OF THEMSELVES.

Recognition of that fact and crafting policy responses to low test scores with that in mind would necessarily lower the stakes on the tests themselves.

Further, while there might be some argument for an annual test that could contribute to closer monitoring of those symptoms, there is no argument that convincingly says that such tests must be given to every student in every grade in order to get a good picture of how schools and school systems serve historically disadvantaged children.  First, a low stakes system of formative assessments, both qualitative and quantitative, could apply to all children and would conform to accommodations for children with special needs.  So there can readily be ways for teachers, schools, and parents to know how ALL students are doing during the course of the year.

Once we’ve set aside the issue of having a meaningful, formative assessment system for all students that can actually assist teachers, there’s no truly compelling argument against properly devised sampling of students for standardized testing.  Implemented correctly, sampling would not leave substantial numbers of children invisible as Mr. Aldeman fears, and we would stop spending inordinate time trying to ferret out distinctions in performance within schools when, as Dr. Baker once again notes, the greatest and most consequential differences in test measured achievement exist between schools and districts, not within them.  Insisting upon keeping annual testing of every student in every grade keeps an unnecessarily disruptive system in place as part of an accountability system that, in fifteen years, has not yielded sufficient results to justify the sacrifices in teacher autonomy over instruction and the sacrifices in non-tested subjects being shunted aside in favor of test preparation.  In fact, the only people to “benefit” from this system are private test designers like Pearson, who are being handed not just lucrative contracts but also terabytes of data to mine for new products, and advocates of firing as many teachers as possible based upon student test scores.

This is especially frustrating to me because data, when used with a clear understanding of what it can and what it cannot do, is a tool, an important tool at that.  It can help us develop broad pictures of what is happening in schools, and it can direct our attention to places that require more careful and nuanced study.  The persistent overreach and abuse of its capabilities is building a backlash that makes it much harder to successfully advocate for more judicious and appropriate use of what can be learned.  If we wish to SAVE data and its uses in school, it would be best to set aside NCLB and begin again sensibly.

I believe I see the problem, Captain.  My head's been severed.

I believe I see the problem, Captain. My head’s been severed.

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Filed under Data, NCLB, politics, teaching, Testing, VAMs

Arne Duncan’s Great Kid Story Problem

In his speech laying out administration priorities for the renewal or rewrite of No Child Left Behind, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan turned to a personal anecdote to explain the imperative of accountability based reform:

In between my junior and senior year at college, I took a year off to help in my mother’s after-school tutoring program on the South Side of Chicago and figure out if I really wanted to devote my life to this fight for educational opportunity.

One of the students I tutored was a basketball player at the local high school, who was studying to take his ACT.

He was a great kid who had done all the right things. In a very violent neighborhood, he had stayed away from the gangs. He didn’t drink, he didn’t use drugs. He was actually an honor roll student with a “B” average, and on track to graduate. I initially thought this was absolutely a young man who could beat the odds and defy the negative stereotypes of young black men.

But as we started to work together, I was heartbroken to quickly realize that he was basically functionally illiterate.

He was reading at maybe a 2nd or 3rd grade level, and was unable to put together a written paragraph. Tragically, he had played by all the rules, but had no idea how far behind he was. Throughout his life, he had been led to believe that he was on-track for college success.

And he was nowhere close.

The educational system had failed him, and the buck stopped nowhere.

This is the kind of personal story that makes great fodder for satirical pieces in The Onion, but I will grant Secretary Duncan a point: there are children in the system who are passed along from grade to grade without learning enough to be successful in more complex subjects later on.  And the Secretary has a point that in too many cases like these few people are willing to take responsibility.  When I talk to my education students about this, I frame this as a cycle of blame passing:  The ninth grade teacher has a student who cannot write well and blames the junior high teachers for what they didn’t teach.  The junior high teachers blame the middle school teachers, and the middle school teachers blame the elementary school teachers.  Eventually, the child is in utero and nobody has taken proper responsibility for teaching the child as he has arrived in the classroom that year.  Given that higher education institutions report that about 20% of first year students need to take at least one remedial class when they arrive (and even 12.8% of entering students at very selective 4 year schools), it is reasonable to ask if our elementary and secondary education systems can do a better job preparing more students for further schooling.

Of course, answering such questions are complex.  Critics and reformers often point to the number of college students in need of some remediation and state those students are “not ready” for college.  That’s far too broad a brush.  For starters, the numbers are variable by the type of institution reporting, by race and ethnicity, by gender, by age of student, by dependency status, and by the educational obtainment of the parents of the student receiving remediation.   Additionally, students can receive a wide variety of remediation in college from a single studies skills course to an entire plate of courses meant to “plug holes” from elementary and secondary education.  A student who dropped out of high school, got a GED at 25, and enrolled in Community College who needs math instruction to progress in a STEM program is far less worrisome than the young man in Secretary Duncan’s anecdote who is reported as laboring under the impression that his reading level being at The Magic Treehouse series is going to get him into college.

There’s just a problem.  Secretary Duncan’s priorities for the NCLB revision won’t help him either.

It isn’t that someone shouldn’t have taken responsibility for the young man’s learning (although how Secretary Duncan, at the callow age of 20 or 21 could actually tell that nobody had done so is left unexplained); it’s that forcing that responsibility by holding his teachers accountable to his standardized test scores each and every year, as favored by the Obama administration, is one of the worst paths to take to help him.

“Testing” is not a dirty word.  As part of a multiple assessment system to help teachers, students, and parents know where students stand and in what areas students need help.  Formative assessments, however they are developed and administered, are meant to provide the kind of feedback that can personalize instruction and help teachers as they create a rich and complete curriculum.  Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University notes for what such assessments cannot be used:

This information should NOT be used for “accountability” purposes. It should NOT be mined/aggregated/modeled to determine at high level whether institutions or individuals are “doing their jobs,” or for closing schools and firing teachers. That’s not to say, however, that there might not be some use for institutions (schools districts) mining these data to determine how student progress is being made on certain concepts/skills across schools, in order to identify, strengths and weaknesses. In other words, for thoughtful data informed management. Current annual assessments aren’t particularly useful for “data informed” leadership either. But this stuff could be, given the right modeling tools.

This is the approach we use to ensure that no child is left behind. By the time annual, uniform, standardized assessment data are returned in relatively meaningless aggregate scores to the front office 6 months down the road, those kids have already been left behind, and the information provided isn’t even sufficiently fine grained as to be helpful in helping them to catch up.

Dr. Baker differentiates testing used for individual diagnostic purposes and testing used for accountability/system monitoring purposes:

When it comes to testing for system monitoring, where we are looking at institutions and systems, rather than individuals, immediate feedback is less important. Time intervals can be longer, because institutional change occurs over the long haul, not from just this year, to next. Further, we want our sampling – our measurements – to be as minimally intrusive as possible – both in terms of the number of times we take those measurements, and in terms of the number of measurements we take at any one time. In part, we want measurement for accountability purposes to be non-intrusive so that teachers and local administrators, and the kids especially, can get on with their day – with their learning – development of knowledge and skills.

So, when it comes to “System Monitoring” the most appropriate approach is to use a sampling scheme that is minimally sufficient to capture, at point in time, achievement levels of kids in any given school or district (Institution). You don’t have to test every kid in a school to know how kids in that school are doing. You don’t have to have any one kid take an entire test, if you creatively distribute relevant test items across appropriately sampled kids. Using sampling methods like those used in the National Assessment of Educational Progress can go a long way toward reducing the intrusiveness of testing while providing potentially more valid estimates of institutional performance (how well schools and districts are doing).

The distinctions here should be obvious, and they are crucial:  accountability relies upon system wide data that is best captured via sampling, and monitoring system wide trends via data does not require that every child be tested in the same standardized test every single year.  As Dr. Baker has shown previously, trying to take this data and use it for accountability of individual teachers based upon value-added modeling does not produce results that are stable and are therefore pretty useless.

Wouldn’t you know that Secretary Duncan has it exactly backwards?

By insisting that large standardized measures be given to every child every year AND endorsing using those data for individual teacher accountability, the Secretary is calling for maintaining a standardized testing regime that is needlessly intrusive and for applying the data from those tests for the wrong purposes.  Worse, it is incentivizing the worst kind of teaching, practices to which Secretary Duncan gave a passing acknowledgement as destructive but which his insistence upon placing the highest stakes on an intrusive testing schedule will entrench into classrooms.  We’ve seen this in the years since NCLB with narrowing curricula and more focus on tested subjects that upon a full, rich curriculum.

One other rationale is possible by insisting upon annual, large scale examinations for every child, but it is one that betrays a lack of imagination.  Secretary Duncan said that:

I believe parents, and teachers, and students have both the right and the absolute need to know how much progress all students are making each year towards college- and career-readiness. The reality of unexpected, crushing disappointments, about the actual lack of college preparedness cannot continue to happen to hard working 16- and 17-year olds – it is not fair to them, and it is simply too late. Those days must be over.

That means that all students need to take annual, statewide assessments that are aligned to their teacher’s classroom instruction in reading and math in grades 3 through 8, and once in high school.

Secretary Duncan is suggesting that mass standardized tests given annually are the tools needed by parents to monitor their children’s progress.  I suppose there may be families out there who are itching for that packet from the state DOE that comes weeks or months after the standardized exam, but I think it is far more likely that parents would like to know that teachers have access and utilize a steady stream of tools to assist their students and to communicate with families.  As it stands, Secretary Duncan insists on giving those parents a single test result that can suggest something is going on but which cannot say a blessed thing about why it is going on.

Arne Duncan is worried about that great kid he met three decades ago.  Sadly, he doesn’t have a clue about what would have helped that child not get lost in the system.

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Filed under Common Core, Data, NCLB, teaching, Testing

Liberal Apostasy: Is It Time To Downgrade the Federal Department of Education?

Washington has seen recent jockeying for positions on the debate to repeal or revise the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) as Republican Senator and former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander takes over the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions.  Senator Alexander has signaled that he intends to engage in significant overhauls of the 2001 law which updated the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and which has been due for re-authorization since 2007.  He will likely find atypical allies from traditionally Democratic leaning teacher unions who will join more conservative advocates in calling for a decrease in standardized testing and walking back Obama Administration initiatives that have pushed states to evaluate individual teachers and make tenure and dismissal processes tied to such scores.

Current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan laid out some of his priorities for an overhaul of the legislation in a speech on January 12th, and he was joined by a group statement from a number of venerable civil rights organizations that, among their other priorities for federal education law, called on lawmakers to preserve the annual standardized testing requirements from NCLB.  Given the historic problems in many state with both resistance to integration and with neglecting urban and rural student populations which led to more vigorous federal education laws in the first place, it is not surprising that such organizations would want a new education law to retain tight oversight provisions for the states.  Secretary Duncan, in his planned remarks, emphasized accountability:

I believe parents, and teachers, and students have both the right and the absolute need to know how much progress all students are making each year towards college- and career-readiness. The reality of unexpected, crushing disappointments, about the actual lack of college preparedness cannot continue to happen to hard-working 16- and 17-year olds – it is not fair to them, and it is simply too late. Those days must be over.

That means that all students need to take annual, statewide assessments that are aligned to their teacher’s classroom instruction in reading and math in grades 3 through 8, and once in high school.

As he continued, he framed the need for accountability in civil rights language:

Will we work together to ensure that every public school makes a real priority of the educational progress of minority students, those living in poverty – be there rural, urban, or someplace else — those with disabilities, those learning English, or other groups that have struggled in school in the past? Should unacceptable achievement gaps require action? Or is that simply optional?

Secretary Duncan’s questions were poignant, and the moral authority of the NAACP and the ACLU should have reminded listeners that we have historically done a poor job improving educational opportunity for students minority students and students in poverty.  However, the insistence that annual, standardized test-based accountability is the only solution to making certain that we are accountable to all of our students is deeply flawed.  It is flawed because the testing regimen that Secretary Duncan supports has already narrowed the curriculum received by huge swaths of our student population, even though Secretary Duncan declared that non-tested subjects like science and the arts “are essentials, not luxuries.”  It is flawed because even though Secretary Duncan stated that teachers and principals deserve support, the national reality is that most states are still spending less on education today than they did before the Great Recession even as the federal government has pushed those states to demand much more from those same teachers and principals.  It is flawed because while Secretary Duncan said he believes “teachers deserve fair, genuinely helpful systems for evaluation and professional growth that identify excellence and take into account student learning growth,” his favored metric is the value-added model (VAM) of teacher performance, and the research simply does not support using VAMs as either “fair” or “genuinely helpful” and they certainly cannot “identify excellence” with reliability.

Secretary Duncan once famously said that “We should be able to look every second grader in the eye and say, ‘You’re on track, you’re going to be able to go to a good college, or you’re not,’” so his faith in power of standardized testing data is long lasting and probably sincere, but it has led his department, under the guise of relieving states from the most punishing aspects of NCLB, to push states in educational directions that are legitimately damaging to the public’s trust in education and which incentivize schools and teachers to further narrow their curriculum in search of higher test performance.

Which leads me to a question: Is it time to downgrade the federal department of education?

This is not an idle question because while I believe that the federal legislation from the 1960s and 1970s was a necessary beginning to address systemic inequalities in educational opportunity for the poor, for minorities, for women, and for people with disabilities, the Cabinet level role of the Department of Education has become highly problematic in today’s hyper-focus on standardized testing.  The federal DOE was actually created by Congress in 1979 in order to strengthen the federal commitment to public education and to increase coordination and accountability for the various federal laws that have direct impact on schools.  The department was immediately under fire from conservative activists interested in a smaller federal government, and President Reagan, riding the conservative wave that put him in office, pledged to abolish the fledgling department.  This did not happen, and by the 1990s, the department was secure under the successive Presidencies of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.  With the bipartisan passage of No Child Left Behind, the department was firmly entrenched in pushing states to hold schools accountable to student achievement on standardized test scores, and while the Obama administration Race to the Top grants allowed states to apply for waivers on NCLB requirements that all children read and do math “at grade level,” states had to agree to adopt common standards, expand charter schools, and use standardized test scores to evaluate teachers.  Secretary Duncan made it clear that he would hold states receiving waivers to those agreements when in April of last year, he stripped Washington state’s NCLB waivers for not meeting the federal department’s “requirements for reform.” 

The federal government provides roughly 12% of the annual national spending of $550 billion on elementary and secondary education.  While this does not represent a sum that comes close to helping states meet federal requirements, it has proven enough for the federal government to use the Department of Education to push policies like test-based accountability and rapid expansion of charter schools upon states and locales that might seek other ways to improve their schools given more flexibility.  Title 1 funds, for example, reach 56,000 schools serving 21 million children, but since NCLB those funds have been tied towards demonstration of student annual progress via standardized testing and during the Obama administration states were required to use standardized tests to evaluate teachers if the received waivers from other NCLB provisions.  The federal government can use its funding to enforce specific policy priorities on the states, but it rarely funds those priorities enough to help school districts implement them effectively.  For example, for 40 years the federal government has failed to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), covering roughly 17% of the cost of the legislation even though it has long promised states to cover a full 40%.

Questioning the Cabinet level role of the DOE does not mean abandoning the landmark legislation in education that proceeded the department’s formation, and it is important to recognize the significant and needed impact of that legislation.  Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children in 1975.  In the 1969-1970 school year, a total of 2,677,000 children representing 5.9% of all children in public school received special education services, but none of them were identified with specific learning disabilities.  In the 1979-1980 school year, 4,005,000 children representing 8.9% of all students received special education services, including almost 1.3 million with specific learning disabilities that were being accommodated.  Title IX was passed in 1972 when 386,683 women received bachelors degrees, representing 46% of degrees conferred.  By 1979-1980 school year, that percentage had risen to 49%.  In 1960, five years before the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed, the median years of school attended by an African American male was 7.9, and by 1980, that had increased to 11.9 years — more important, the gap in the median number of years in school between white and black males closed from 20 percentage points.

All of these gains occurred in the wake of landmark federal legislation, but before the Department of Education was created in its current form.

What makes the current federal DOE so problematic in 2015 is not the role that it was created to play, but the fact that most initiatives out of it since Congress passed No Child Left Behind resemble a classic case of regulatory capture by the for profit charter school sector, the testing industry, and the data mining industries.  Unlike other cases of regulatory capture, there appears to be no prospect for partisan realignment as administrations change and monied interests involved in the Executive branch shift — successive two-term Republican and Democratic administrations have charged down the current path, prioritizing testing with increasingly higher stakes.

While eliminating the Cabinet level DOE would impede some of these forces, I am also mindful of important considerations.  First, the civil rights organizations that have signed on supporting Secretary Duncan’s priorities are not wrong in their concern that states have historically neglected and have even actively discriminated against certain populations, and that states and localities must be held accountable for providing equal access and equal opportunities for all of their students. While I disagree that yearly high stakes examinations are the way to ensure that, nobody can reasonably look at our history and dismiss the issue.  Second, demoting the federal DOE might complicate the plans of the interests who have worked to monetize public education, but it is not as if they are absent from state level government. When it comes to adding requirements to teachers while cutting funding and when it comes to turning public schools over to charter corporations, there is little daylight between Democratic star politicians like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, and former Newark Mayor and now United States Senator Cory Booker and Republican counterparts such as Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Chris Christie of New Jersey.

Finally, as Arthur Camins notes here, our problem of the past 15 years can be described as the federal DOE “reaching for the wrong things:”

The problem over the last several decades of education policy is not overreach. It is that the federal government has been reaching for the wrong things in the wrong places with the wrong policy levers. For example, the nation has largely abandoned efforts to end segregation, arguably a prime driver of education inequity. The large-scale, community-building infrastructure and WPA and CCC employment efforts of the Great Depression have given way to the limited escape from poverty marketing pitch of education policy following the Great Recession. Whereas the 1960s War on Poverty targeted community resource issues, current education efforts target the behavior of individual teachers and pits parents against one in other in competition for admission to selected schools.

Professor Camins’ points are well-taken, but advocates for returning public education to the public’s care need ideas for addressing how education policy has been captured in both Washington D.C. and in state capitols. Consider the case of Andrew Cuomo who raised over $40 million between his inauguration in 2010 and reelection in 2014 — more than half of which came from just 341 donors, donors who expect influence upon the governor commensurate with their investment.  In essence, this is a question of rooting up corruption and the circumvention of democratic processes, but as Fordham Law Professor Zephyr Teacher demonstrates, there are no easy answers.

But we must seek answers, even difficult ones.  What has happened at the federal DOE is dangerous for quality and equitable public education, but it is also a symptom of a problem endemic in our politics.  Mere handfuls of extremely wealthy people can override the wishes of millions of voters and circumvent public debate on crucial issues.

We cannot afford it any longer.

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Filed under Chris Christie, Corruption, Cory Booker, Funding, Gates Foundation, politics, Social Justice

Exit The King….An Opportunity for Union Leadership?

Dr. John B. King Jr., the Commissioner of Education and President of the University of the State of New York, is stepping down from that position and will become a senior adviser to United States Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.  While the announcement drew praise from the usual suspects who support Dr. King’s agenda of charter schools, Common Core State Standards, high stakes testing, and teacher evaluations based on test scores, supporters of traditional, fully public, schools had harsh criticisms for the outgoing Commissioner. Education activist and director of Class Size Matters, Leonie Haimson stated:

John King was the most unpopular commissioner in the history of NY State.  He showed no respect for parents, teachers or student privacy.  Ironically, he was intent on protecting his own privacy, and routinely withheld public documents; our Freedom of Information request of his communications with inBloom and the Gates foundation is more than 1 ½ years overdue.  His resignation is good news for New York state; hopefully he will be unable to do as much damage at the US Department of Education.

Dr. King’s problematic tenure began in May, 2011, and he swiftly moved to push through the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and accompanying testing systems that his predecessor Commissioner David Steiner had committed to when Dr. King served as his Deputy Commissioner.  This editorial, appearing in the Hudson Valley paper The Journal News, summarizes Dr. King’s time as Commissioner as “tone-deaf” and characterized by his inability to listen to criticism:

Many parents and educators in this region have offered reasonable, passionate and often convincing arguments against the growing state focus on testing, data-crunching, and evaluating teachers with a formula that is easily picked apart. But King has not been willing to engage his critics. This position has enraged many and created a bizarre stare-down between the state Education Department and many school districts that are supposed to be part of the same team.

The problems with Dr. King’s governance of NYSED are multifaceted.  The EngageNY website, set up by the State Education Department as a clearinghouse of information on the Common Core State Standards and materials designed for leaders and teachers, was quickly called out for hurried and poorly designed “resources” placed on the site when it debuted.  New York Principal Carol Burris documents in this article parents who found links to inappropriate materials under “make test prep fun”, and materials posted for modules on 8th grade algebra which included links to topics that are taught in calculus.  As with many things associated with the Common Core, the rush to both develop and implement the standards has led to a “get the product out and clean it up later” mentality that is emblematic of Dr. King’s leadership and many other reformers.

Questionable materials from EngageNY might have been overlooked by many in the public, but the CCSS are tied to high stakes testing on student proficiency in the standards — and Dr. King has been moving New York at a rapid clip in that direction as well.  Predictably, those who have had close contact with the exams have noted, within the allowed parameters of a nondisclosure agreement with testing giant Pearson, how the exams are confusing and inappropriate for the age of students who have to take them, another likely effect of their being rushed to meet Dr. King’s implementation schedule.  Principal Elizabeth Philips of PS 321 in Park Slope noted earlier this year in the New York Times:

In general terms, the tests were confusing, developmentally inappropriate and not well aligned with the Common Core standards. The questions were focused on small details in the passages, rather than on overall comprehension, and many were ambiguous. Children as young as 8 were asked several questions that required rereading four different paragraphs and then deciding which one of those paragraphs best connected to a fifth paragraph. There was a strong emphasis on questions addressing the structure rather than the meaning of the texts. There was also a striking lack of passages with an urban setting. And the tests were too long; none of us can figure out why we need to test for three days to determine how well a child reads and writes….

…At Public School 321, we entered this year’s testing period doing everything that we were supposed to do as a school. We limited test prep and kept the focus on great instruction. We reassured families that we would avoid stressing out their children, and we did. But we believed that New York State and Pearson would have listened to the extensive feedback they received last year and revised the tests accordingly. We were not naïve enough to think that the tests would be transformed, but we counted on their being slightly improved. It truly was shocking to look at the exams in third, fourth and fifth grade and to see that they were worse than ever. We felt as if we’d been had.

As troubling as the quality of the exams used to assess students’ “College and Career Readiness” AND their teachers’ effectiveness is, the way that the scores were deliberately (and opaquely) engineered to rate only 30% of students as proficient and highly proficient is worse.  State officials, including Dr. King, warned that the scores from the first round of CCSS aligned testing would produce dramatically lower results, but those warnings were predicated on schools not having sufficiently aligned curriculum materials yet.  However, Principal Burris provided an in-depth analysis of how the cut scores for each level of achievement were determined, and her conclusion is troubling:  Dr. King asked for a specific analysis from the College Board on SAT scores that predict “success” in first year courses at 4 year colleges and universities, and the result of that analysis was used to determine what scores on the CCSS aligned tests would be labeled as “proficient” and “highly proficient” as the committee worked through the materials with representatives from the State Education Department.  The result was that 31% of students taking the tests scored as proficient and highly proficient — and the evidence points to the conclusion that Dr. King and the SED wanted that result.

By the way — the percentage of New York residents over 25 with a BA?  32.8%Far from finding a vast educational wasteland where only a third of students succeed, the tests found the percentage of students likely to pursue higher education.

Not that Dr. King, the Regents, or anyone from the Cuomo administration was eager to explain it that way and justifying it as a good assessment system for the entire student population.  This became painfully clear when Dr. King attempted a publicity tour of town hall meetings that erupted disastrously in Poughkeepsie  in Fall of last year.  While keeping his usual calm and soft-spoken demeanor in face of extensive and heated criticism, Dr. King also remained entirely impervious to the concerns of the gathered parents and other community stakeholders.  After the Poughkeepsie forum, he also changed the schedule, canceling meetings, and switched formats so he appeared with a number of other state officials — and despite claiming the goal was to listen to concerns, nothing has dissuaded Dr. King from barreling on at full speed.  In early April of this year, he told an audience at New York University that New York was on the right path and “We’re not retreating” from the combined reforms ushered in during his tenure. In the same talk, he essentially dismissed parents who were opting their children out of the testing by saying “they are now denying themselves and their teachers the opportunity to know how their children are performing against a common benchmark used throughout the state.”  While Dr. King’s steadfastness earned him high praise from allies like Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and reform organizations, some lawmakers in Albany noted his poor representation of his ideas and his unwillingness to listen to others’ ideas, leading to bipartisan calls for his improvement or resignation last year.  Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti (D. Westchester) noted:

“For quite some time, Education Commissioner John King has closed off all meaningful conversation with parents, educators, administrators, and elected officials who have highlighted serious deficiencies in State Education Department policies,” Abinanti said. “He has exhibited a conscious disregard for their concerns.

“He should be listening, educating where criticisms are unfounded, and adopting changes where criticisms are valid,” the lawmaker continued. “His rigidity makes him unsuited for the position of Education Commissioner. Commissioner King should resign immediately.”

Assemblyman Abinanti was joined in this criticism by Republican Senator Jack Collins and New York State Allies for Public Education, and they were joined in April of this year by the New York State United Teachers’ Delegate Assembly who withdrew support for New York state’s Common Core implementation, supported parents who opt their children out of state examinations, and called for Dr. King’s removal as Commissioner.

But being a failed education reform leader is a lot like being a failed hedge fund manager — others have to live with the consequences of your actions while you get a quiet send off to another lucrative position, so Dr. King is off the join Secretary Duncan in Washington, D.C.

Dr. King is obviously a greatly intelligent man.  His academic accomplishments, which include a B.A. from Harvard University, a J.D. from Yale Law School, and both an M.A. and Ed.D. from Teachers College at Columbia University, are appropriately described as impressive as hell.  He was born in 1975 which means that he was 22 in 1997.  According to his biography, he taught for 3 years, and joined the founding leadership team for Roxbury Prep charter school, and from there moved to become Managing Director of the Uncommon School charter network, a chain on “no excuses” and extremely high attrition charter schools in various urban communities.  Dr. King was 34 years old when he was tapped to become Deputy Commissioner of NYSED, and he was 36 years old when he succeeded David Steiner as Commissioner and became the daily leader for the 7000 public and private schools, the 270 private and public colleges and universities, the 7000 public libraries, the 900 museums, the 25 public broadcasting services, and all of the different licensed professions that comprise the University of the State of New York.  He had never led a fully public school as principal, and he had never been in the leadership of a public school district.

Dr. King is an excellent example of how experience and specialized knowledge matter.  He is an impressively intelligent man who clearly impressed some very important people with his intelligence and commitment to a set of ideas for education reform.  However, understanding the complexities of public education requires both special knowledge and experience.  Public school governance is a peculiar case study where a structure that looks like a typical hierarchical bureaucracy is subjected to multiple levels of democratic control and where various stakeholders have overlapping sets of both complimentary and competing interests.  These same stakeholders are not limited in their access to the organization by the rules of top down corporate management either, and they can access the different layers of authority and practice without having to go through official channels.  Governing such a structure, as any principal or superintendent knows, takes more than intelligence and knowledge; it takes leadership, political acumen, negotiating skills, and flexibility in the face of emergent needs and complications.  While these skills may be innate, all of them are honed by experience.

If Dr. King had been a superintendent of a complex school system for ten years when he was tapped to become Deputy Commissioner, his intelligence and knowledge may have been tempered by a proper understanding of the complexities of public education and the skills needed to leverage the various stakeholders.  Instead, he clearly had no idea how to work with those constituencies and frequently favored opacity and rigidity when implementing major changes to something both parents and teachers take incredibly personally.

With Dr. King on the way out, there is an opportunity for New York and national union leadership to leverage a difference.  The next Commissioner will be appointed by the Regents, so the next Commissioner will still be committed to CCSS, high stakes testing, VAM based teacher evaluation, and charter schools.  However, there is no need for the next Commissioner to be closed off to all stakeholders outside of the NYSED, and there is every possibility that a Commissioner with genuine school and district leadership experience will understand how to negotiate and how to adapt to changing circumstances.  A Commissioner who has led a complex school district will be more likely to understand that leveraging complex changes requires time, resources, development, and a constant process of revising plans to respond to emergent needs that are inherently unpredictable.

I have no doubt in my mind that such a leader is exactly the kind of person that Regents Chancellor Dr. Merryl Tisch has no interest in appointing. But a public campaign to explain the need to the state could pressure her to seek an appointee interested in her reform agenda but with the skills that would blunt it. That is far from perfect, but the current leadership in Albany precludes the perfect.

Last month, I wrote an open letter to AFT President Randi Weingarten, and to my surprise, she contacted me directly and responded on my blog.  She responded to my concerns that union leadership was so concerned with maintaining a “seat at the table” with policy makers that the union was failing to vigorously oppose and denounce damaging policies that were coming from politicians from the union’s traditional political allies:

To advance this mission—which is the soul of the union—we have to use every single tactic and strategy available. That means at the ballot box, the bargaining table, the town square and the picket line, and it also entails the building of community and school partnerships, devising solutions and taking the risk to try things–provided they are good for kids and fair to educators. We must always work as a democratic institution that builds the trust, the agency and the activism of our members. That’s what we mean when we say solution driven, member mobilized and community engaged.

When we have the responsibility of being the bargaining agent, we can’t walk away from the table. It is at the table where we have a legal voice—a voice that many governors, like Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin or soon-to-be former Gov. Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, have rushed to obliterate.

More important, if we want to make a difference in the lives of our students, our communities and the wonderful people we represent, we need to be able to both fight back and find common ground. It can’t be either/or. We can’t take only one of these approaches. Which approach depends upon what will best serve our students, our schools, our profession and our communities. And while those decisions on which tools to employ and which strategies to adopt will vary under the circumstances, our values must always be firmly held. It is about keeping “our eyes on the prize.”

I won’t say that President Weingarten and I are seeing exactly eye to eye here, but perhaps we are on the same step ladder.  And while the union has been more clear of late in challenging the anti-public school rhetoric coming from Albany, the compromise of continuing to engage with the policy makers, of staying at the table, is a compromise that should give the NYSUT and its parent AFT some chips to cash in.  I hope that in the coming weeks, the Regents will hear clearly, forcefully, and PUBLICLY from the teachers’ strongest representatives that our state needs a Commissioner who understands public education, knows the perspectives of the communities, parents, students, and professionals who make up public schools, and is willing to make education reform an iterative process instead of a set of rigid commandments.

New York State’s 600,000 professional teachers and million of public school students deserve a Commissioner with these experiences and skills.  And we need the most powerful voices in the state to call for that in public.

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Filed under Common Core, New York Board of Regents, schools, Testing, Unions

Bride of VAMenstein: No Bad Idea Gets Left Behind

When I was much younger, my grandfather, a carpenter and engineer, had an expression he was fond of saying whenever we drove through a particularly poorly designed intersection or highway interchange.  He’d grunt in disgust and comment, “Whoever built this should do the world a favor.  Design ONE more and then drop dead.”

There are times when I’d like the economists who keep insisting they can design value added models of teacher effectiveness to consider following the same advice.

On November 25th, the U.S. Department of Education released newly proposed regulations for teacher preparation in the over 1200 programs that exist across the country.  The press release stated:

“It has long been clear that as a nation, we could do a far better job of preparing teachers for the classroom. It’s not just something that studies show – I hear it in my conversations with teachers, principals and parents,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. “New teachers want to do a great job for their kids, but often, they struggle at the beginning of their careers and have to figure out too much for themselves. Teachers deserve better, and our students do too. This proposal, along with our other key initiatives in supporting flexibility, equity and leadership, will help get us closer to President Obama’s goal of putting a great teacher in every classroom, and especially in our high-need schools.”

This is not a new subject for research and policy speculation.  In 1984, Judith Lanier of Michigan State University contributed a comprehensive chapter on teacher education for the 3rd Handbook of Research on Teaching.  Dr. Lanier concluded that while many spoke of the importance of teacher preparation, there were no entities willing to take robust authority for making sure its many parts worked, and that its quality remained highly spotty and often quite poor.  Since then, there have been numerous proposals to change and improve teacher preparation from the Holmes Group Reports, to the Carnegie report on teacher preparation, to John Goodlad’s proposals for preparing teachers, to the original report of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.  In the 30 years since Dr. Lanier wrote her chapter, there have been numerous proposals, programs, and practices that have worked upon teacher preparation in the United States.

Now it is the turn of the Data Junkies.

The DOE announcement says states will be required to report on the performance of teacher preparation programs based upon the following:

  • Employment outcomes: New teacher placement and three-year retention rates in high-need schools and in all schools.
  • New teacher and employer feedback: Surveys on the effectiveness of preparation.
  • Student learning outcomes: Impact of new teachers as measured by student growth, teacher evaluation, or both.
  • Assurance of specialized accreditation or evidence that a program produces high-quality candidates.

Some of this is benign, some of it is deceptive, and some of it is rank foolishness.  The fact that Secretary Duncan’s statement specifically cited Relay “Graduate School of Education” as an example of an innovation in teacher preparation to be held up does not lead me to a great deal of confidence.  Relay, for those who do not know, is a teacher training “graduate school” that has no actual professors of education and is not attached to an institution of higher learning.  Rather, it is an alternative program housed in North Star Academy Charter School in Newark, NJ using its own teachers to train new hires in the methods of teaching used in North Star and allowing them both to be credentialed and to “earn” graduate degrees.  Relay and its supporters defend this because the charter school has externally impressive scores on standardized tests, but those scores come, as Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University demonstrates, at the expense of more than half of the students who enroll at North Star – because they never make it to graduation.  North Star enrolls over 14% fewer students on free lunch than Newark Public Schools in general, less than half as many students with disabilities, and the students with disabilities at North Star are vastly more likely to be mild or low cost to the school, including no students with autism, no emotionally disturbed students, no intellectually disabled students, and no students with multiple disabilities.  Between 5th grade and 12th grade, half of students attending North Star leave the school, and 60% of African American boys leave.

Just to be clear: The Secretary of Education for the United States of America announced new teacher preparation regulations by praising the “innovation” of a “Graduate School of Education” that does no serious graduate study, has no qualified educational researchers, and that prepares its graduates to teach the methods espoused by a charter school where an African American male student only has a 40% chance of reaching his senior year of high school.

Components of these regulations are puzzling.  The DOE wants states to keep track of teacher retention rates, presumably because of the long known problem of early career teachers leaving both assignments or the profession in high numbers.  Such a requirement raises staggering logistical challenges, as states do not readily have ways to track the careers of teachers certified in their states who teach in other states, teachers who switch teaching in a public school for a position in a private or parochial school, and teachers who take up full time graduate studies — all of which are very different than leaving because of feeling overwhelmed and under-prepared.

More troubling, such data would be largely indicative of the professional cultures and environments of the schools in which teacher preparation graduates teach.  While teacher education has worked in the past three decades to provide prospective teachers with quality experiences to reduce the long recognized “reality shock” experienced by novice teachers, such work is frequently difficult, time and resource intensive, and requires significant rethinking of the relationship between universities and schools where prospective teachers are prepared.  However, significant research also exists that demonstrates that teacher turnover is deeply tied to school factors in initial job placements that are entirely outside university control.  In no place in these regulations on preparing teachers do I see anything related to how states and communities support the local schools to promote collaborative environments that support early career educators. What I do see is a potentially perverse incentive for teacher preparation programs to steer their graduates as far away from struggling schools as possible.

Worse than this provision by far, however, is the proposal to take the already invalid concept of Value Added Measures (VAM) of teacher performance and to use the VAMs of teachers to evaluate their teacher preparation programs.  A VAM is a statistical model based on student standardized test performance that takes a student’s previous year’s test scores, claims to predict how that student will perform given a year of effective teaching, and then generates the teacher’s “value added” based on how well students do based on those predictions.  The American Statistical Association issued a clearly worded statement this year detailing the problems with VAMs, citing both the lack of tests that are valid for the purpose and the very limited impact that teachers have on student variability on standardized test performance.  Research generally agrees that teachers are a very important if not the most important in school factor for students, but research also agrees whatever teachers’ impact is, standardized tests are an exceedingly poor measure of it, accounting for only 1-14% of student variability on the tests.

Despite these inherent flaws, VAMs remain highly popular with the federal DOE which has been influenced by the Gates Foundation funded “Measures of Effective Teaching” study which claims that VAMs can be used as a component of teacher evaluation.  Jesse Rothstein of University of California at Berkeley, however, notes that the data used to justify that claim is strikingly weak, and that teachers who are effective by some measures show up as ineffective by others and vice versa.  Dr. Baker of Rutgers illustrates here that teachers whose students score high in one year (called “Irreplaceables” by Michelle Rhee’s New Teacher Project “thought leaders”) are not all “irreplaceable” in subsequent years (and in fact most drift all over the map), making it absolutely necessary to consider that factors outside of the classroom play significant roles in student test performance. VAMs also potentially damage teachers whose students, far from being low performers, work at an accelerated curriculum that is several years past the material directly tested on the exams used to generate VAMs.  The New York Times reported in 2011 of the tribulations of Ms. Stacy Isaacson, who was universally regarded as an outstanding mathematics teacher whose students got excellent scores on state examinations and over two dozen of whom went on to New York City’s highly selective high schools, got ranked in the 7th percentile of teachers in the city by the VAM formula used that year:

NYC VAM

Ms. Isaacson’s low percentile could not be explained to her by anyone in her administration, and the fault lay at the opaque statistical formula used to rank her based on students’ tests.  Given the inherent flaws with VAMs, my explanation is as follows.  In the New York City Value Added Model, what is circled in this picture is a real number:

NYC VAMreal

Everything circled here is the result of misapplying statistical tools used to model entire national economies to a single teacher’s classrooms:

NYC VAMfake

Anyone who knows children and their development should be troubled by VAMs because in order to believe that they work with such small samples as a single teacher’s classroom, we have to believe that the VAM can adequately account for every factor outside of a teacher’s instruction that can impact how students do on a test.  Did Johnny get an Individualized Education Plan this year that finally provides support for his dyslexia?  Are Johnny’s parents reconciling after a period of separation and his home life is stabilizing?  Has Johnny’s cognitive development reached a point where he is ready for more complex learning and will outpace previous years of instruction because children do not actually develop in straight lines?  All of these are factors that can boost a teacher’s value added score without the teacher actually having done anything especially different for Johnny.  There are as many factors not directly related to a single teacher that can negatively impact a value added score.

So let’s review: Research supporting VAMs ignores its own contradictory research.  No current standardized test is sufficiently well designed for the purpose of generating VAMs. VAMs measure teacher input on student variability in standardized test scores which is as low as 1% and only as high as 14%.  Teachers whose students score in very high percentiles in one year can have students who score far differently in subsequent years. Teachers who are effective by every other measure possible can be placed in the very bottom tier of teachers using VAMs.  This is not the kind of stuff that inspires much confidence, but the federal DOE is going to push ahead anyway.

Have really terrible measures of teacher effectiveness on your hands?  Never mind!  If you are Secretary Duncan, you have Bill Gates backed research and advocacy, and seriously flawed “research” from Michelle Rhee’s pet group to tell you otherwise.  Full speed ahead.

Of course, if you are going to blatantly ignore what a growing body of genuine research tells you about your favored reforms, it stands to reason that you will double down on them and try to push them even further into the system by measuring teacher preparation programs by the VAMs their graduates generate.  There is a lesson here that Secretary Duncan, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and an entire platoon of corporate reformers seem incapable of learning, and it has to do with learning humility when beloved projects turn out to be far more complicated and fraught with failure than anticipated.

In the 1935 sequel “Bride of Frankenstein,” the badly wounded but recovering Henry Frankenstein initially renounces his creation but is forced by his former mentor, Dr. Septimus Pretorius, to assist a project creating a “bride” for the monster.  The monster is excited by the chance to have a companion like himself, but is quickly devastated by her immediate, terrified, rejection of him and destroys himself, Henry’s laboratory, Dr. Pretorius, and the bride, proving again that the power of life and death is not a toy to be trifled with.

I could save Secretary Duncan quite a lot of trouble if he’d just ask.

Well, that didn't go as planned, did it?

Well, that didn’t go as planned, did it?

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Filed under Gates Foundation, schools, teacher learning, Testing, VAMs

If You Don’t Know What is Happening in Newark, You Should

Newark Public Schools began the school year under the “One Newark” program imposed upon the city by Trenton appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson.  The plan, which is the fruition of the partnership between Governor Chris Christie and former Mayor and current U.S. Senator Cory Booker, essentially speeds up the process by which neighborhood schools are labeled failures and turned over to charter school management and, in theory, opens up the entire city to a school choice plan potentially sending students all across the city in search of schools.  Community concern, parent, student and teacher, has been brushed aside, and the plan has been put into operation this school year.

Bob Braun, retired education reporter for the New Jersey Star Ledger has extensively covered the plan’s roll out on his blog, Bob Braun’s Ledger, and it is safe to say that he characterizes it more as a roll OVER of the entire community.  Schools were slated to close even when succeeding by every reasonable metricAnderson stopped attending monthly public meetings where she was hearing the public’s anger and confusion.  Even Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has expressed concern that Anderson’s plans are being rushed to implementation too quickly.  During the summer months, it was clear that Anderson had no operable plans for the transportation logistics problems caused by potentially busing students from the same families across the city to entirely different schools.  The lack of planning or even of care to plan was further evident this summer, when parents, taking off much needed work hours to participate in a school assignment process, were left waiting for hours in sweltering heat only to be told they would have to return another day.  Mind you, this wasn’t to enroll in an assigned school — it was just to get an assignment at all.  Mr. Braun reported one of just many heart-breaking stories entirely born of the cruelty being imposed upon Newark:

All the parents had stories to tell about the cruelty inflicted by the Anderson/Christie regime on the often poor and predominantly black and Hispanic residents of Newark. Typical was the story told by Marisol Mendez who came to the “One Newark” registration day to find placements for her 14-year-old son, Carlos Perez, and 9-year-old daughter, Emily Perez. The family lives in the North Ward and the children attended Abington Avenue but, when they applied under Anderson’s “One Newark” plan, Carlos, a special education student, they were  assigned to West Side High School and Emily was sent to a South Ward school.

“The placements were inappropriate for both of the children,” says Mendez. “My daughter is not going to take NJ Transit across town and my son needs a self-contained, special education class. He has had one all of his school career.”

Mendez tried to get answers from both the NPS administration and from charter schools. But, she says, two charter school operators–Newark Prep and K-12–told her they couldn’t take special education students. When she tried to speak to bureaucrats downtown, she received this shocking answer:

“They told me I should home-school my children.”

Anderson was upbeat on opening day, despite numerous reports of buses wandering the streets trying to find the students they were supposed to pick up.  But this week, the Newark Students Union tried to prove a point: that even in a politically disenfranchised community like Newark, people love their schools and will use whatever voice they can to make themselves heard.  On September 9th and 10th, students took part in direct action to protest what has been imposed upon them from outside political and economic alliances that see their entire school system as a worthy “experiment” at “creative destruction”.  With threats of citywide boycotts no longer supported by adult-led institutions such as the teachers’ union and the city clergy, these teens decided they had to be on the vanguard of demanding that Newark be heard: as reported by WABC News in New York City.  The student activists protested a second day by blockading the street near Anderson’s office as reported by WNBC the following day.  That protest culminated when police moved in to unchain the protesters, injuring the group’s leader, Kristin Towkaniuk.  Time will tell what will become in Newark, but despite their setbacks, it was genuinely inspiring to see students standing up when few adults are willing to do so.

And we all might have to get used to it.  I hope that I am wrong, but I have a terrible feeling that what is happening in Newark will shortly become the norm in American urban education.  Those schools have been treated to over 31 years of a relentless narrative of failure that has set them up for this kind of externally imposed disruption, and large portions of their populations are alienated constituencies in the body politic who certainly cannot muster the kind of money that drives policy today.

What worries me is that the growing backlash against the common standards, associated testing and use of testing to label students, teachers and schools as “failures” ripe for reorganization and take over is one with teeth because it has been pushed into our politically empowered communities, ones under no threat of state take over and loss of local control.  Peter Greene, a teacher and blogger, wrote about how at least one enthusiastic advocate of current reform trends, Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute, appears to be grasping this problem.  The gist is that Mr. Petrilli is now concerned that he and his fellow reform enthusiasts have mistakenly pushed their entire reform package into communities that have always thought highly of their schools, get the outcomes that they wish from those schools, have no easily identified need for drastic changes — plus they vote.  Some of them are even affiliated with powerful corporations who can provide the kind of monetary largesse that gets the attention of policy makers.

I could have told him this years ago if he had asked.  While a super majority of Americans think our schools are doing a mediocre job at best, a similar super majority of parents approve of the schools their children attend, and the Race To The Top package of reforms have taken the failure narrative from urban parents long used to it and pushed it out to the suburbs, whose parents are getting pissed at it.  Petrilli is even willing to admit that most high poverty schools are not failing so much as they are “no better and no worse” than average suburban schools.  However, he then pivots that such schools cannot “settle” for average and arrives at his conclusion that “no excuses” charter schools are the “best” suited for the job of propelling high poverty student populations to match students in affluent communities.

And this is why we can expect Newark to be replicated across the country if we don’t speak up even from the comfortable position of middle class school patrons.  I think Petrilli is correct when he diagnoses the reasons for growing push back against Common Core, testing and school failure.  Reformers have pushed so hard so quickly that they have challenged the politically empowered constituencies that policy setters need in order to stay in office. They certainly cannot charterize school districts where well-off families paid top dollar for homes in a neighborhood specifically because of the neighborhood schools.

But the efforts to turn over more public schools to charter management organizations will not give up easily.  If you have any doubt about that, recall that Wall Street donations pushed over 3 million dollars into the campaign of Shavar Jeffries for Newark mayor because his opponent, now-Mayor Ras Baraka opposed One Newark and its plans to turn over many more Newark schools to charters.  This is in a city where the mayor and school board have no real power over the schools.  There are well-financed and influential operations that want One Newark to become a model for urban education.

If that happens, we will have missed an opportunity.  If suburban parents manage to push back the disruption of current reforms from their communities, only to stand back and allow it to be imposed, full force, on communities without political power, it will be yet one more anti-democratic burden layered upon the backs of these communities.  It will be yet another case where we have abandoned children living in poverty as someone else’s problem, favoring the “easy” answers promised by education “reform” instead of the hard work of re-imagining a society without institutional racism and an economy where genuine opportunity flows upward.

We cannot afford to keep ignoring that.

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Filed under Activism, Cami Anderson, charter schools, Chris Christie, Common Core, Cory Booker, Newark, One Newark, politics, schools, Social Justice

Four More Things To Tell President Obama

Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post wrote last week that President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had a meeting with teachers over lunch.  Her column provided space for the 2007 Arkansas Teacher of the Year, Justin Minkel, to offer his insights into how the meeting went and what the President and Secretary heard from the teachers present.  Mr. Minkel, who is a member of both the National Network of State Teachers of the Year and the Center for Teacher Quality and who blogs for Education Week and for CTQ, wrote cogently and intelligently about four key points:

1. There’s Nothing Wrong With the Kids

2. “Responsibility and Delight Can Co-exist”

3. It’s not about good and bad teachers.  It is about good and bad teaching.

4. If we want students to innovate, collaborate, and solve real-world problems, we need to make it possible for teachers to do the same things.

These are outstanding points, and I thank Mr. Minkel and his fellow teachers for communicating them directly at such a high level.  There are, of course, many other points that the President and his Secretary of Education need to genuinely hear and know.  I would like to offer my own four points to build upon these:

1. You are looking for teacher effectiveness in all the wrong places

Teachers matter.  Nobody should ever suggest otherwise.  But No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top both represent sustained efforts to locate how teachers matter in standardized test scores, and since Race to the Top, the strongest proxy for teacher effectiveness written into state and federal policy has been annual student progress on standardized testing. This is a flawed approach for several reasons.  To begin with, the tests that are designed to demonstrate if a student has mastered a body of knowledge or a set of skills are designed for that purpose and that purpose only.  As Dr. Nunoz of Concordia University Chicago notes, testing and measurement is a precise field and it is improper and inaccurate to use an examination for a different purpose because it would not be designed the same way.  The American Statistical Association released a statement on value added measurements earlier this year that clearly stated that the association does not believe any examination currently used to measure teacher effectiveness meets the strict criteria necessary for such a test, and they noted that most studies on VAMs find that teachers’ input only accounts for between 1-14% of the variability among student results on such tests.  Looking for teacher effectiveness in the results of standardized examinations is essentially playing dice with teachers’ futures.

Even the research that claims such models are useful is suspect.  As Dr. Jesse Rothstein of U.C. Berkeley found, even the Gates Foundation funded research on “Measures of Effective Teaching” makes claims that are poorly supported by their own data. Despite the MET study’s endorsement of VAMs, Dr. Rothstein notes that “teacher evaluations based on observed state test outcomes are only slightly better than coin tosses at identifying teachers whose students perform unusually well or badly  on assessments of conceptual understanding (p. 5),” and goes on to note that teachers whose students did well on standardized exams did far less well on measurements of critical thinking.  Using standardized examinations as a measure of teacher effectiveness can reward a weak teacher who focuses on test preparation and punish a highly skilled teacher who emphasizes higher order thinking and creative problem solving.

Teachers, of course, do make a difference for students.  And there are teachers who do not teach well, and there are teachers who excel at the work.  But the impact of that teaching is simply poorly represented in paper and pencil standardized examinations.  It can be found in student produced artifacts that explore rich content in creative and insightful ways.  It can be found in a classroom that “buzzes” with the constant hum of excited work.  It can be found in the individual lives of children who are inspired to explore a field they never knew held interest before.  It can be found in the children who find a mentor and reliable adult among the body of teachers in a school and stick with their education when nobody thought they could.  It can be found the eyes of a student whose talents and passions are affirmed for the first time in his or her young life.  This is what happens in millions of classrooms across the country on a daily basis that cannot be captured on a standardized examination.

Taylor Mali, teacher and poet, captures quite a lot of that nicely in this poetry performance:

2. It’s the poverty

You’ve been told by a lot of current reformers that talking about the extraordinary difficulties of educating children born into poverty is just “making excuses” for “bad teachers”.  I cannot say not only how much this refrain hurts  teachers who have dedicated themselves to working with our most needy students, but also how much it hurts those very same students.  It places upon the teachers a burden to, on their own, lift children of poverty to a level playing field with their more advantaged peers.  It thrusts upon those children schools that keep cutting out critical thinking and aesthetic enrichment in favor of test preparation because of draconian  layoff and reorganization threats while offering the students a brutally unlevel playing field if they graduate. I can think of few practical jokes more cruel than this.

Poverty is not an “excuse”; it is a fact that broadly impacts the earliest childhood of 22% of our young people.  It is a fact that we do much less to alleviate poverty’s deprivations than our peer democracies in the West.  And because our residential income segregation is very high and has risen by over a third since 1980, it is a fact that poverty disproportionately impacts specific schools and school systems.

And it is not a fact that is fully constrained to those meeting the federal definition of poverty.  Income, housing and food insecurity impact the lower middle class, many of whom are clinging to that status solely because of federal assistance programs and the Earned Income Tax Credit.  In 2011, only North Dakota and New Hampshire had child food insecurity rates below 15%.   The Hamilton Project report also notes that food insecurity can have potentially life long consequences in both educational outcomes and economic security, but teachers are going to be held accountable for children who will suffer lower birth weights, worse lifetime health outcomes and lower economic outcomes because Congress refuses to fund expanded SNAP benefits that amount to less than half of the cost of USS Gerald Ford.

This is not meant to “excuse” those teachers and administrators who give up on children in poverty or near poverty and do not do their utmost to educate, inspire and mentor those in their care.  However, it is intellectually and morally bankrupt to ignore that our much lamented gap in PISA can be located almost entirely within our poverty level, and to blame teachers and schools for failing to single-handedly overcome a phenomenon much larger than our schools and about which the billionaires driving today’s “reforms” refuse to discuss.

3. There is no “secret sauce” for educating our most struggling children

Former White House Chief of Staff and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel opined that Noble Network of charter schools in Chicago had the “secret sauce” for motivating students to perform.  An element of that recipe?  Collecting $400,000 in disciplinary “fines” from its students since 2008.  Advocates of the rapidly expanding charter sector of education like to paper over such practices, but it is vitally important to expose them because while their sponsors and leaders like to hype test performance, they often achieve those results at the expense of up to half of their students.

This should be absolutely clear: with 1000s of charter schools across the country, there must be many schools and teachers who do a genuinely great job with the students in their care.  Unfortunately, they are overshadowed by the high profile charter schools that are essentially corporate entities and that tout themselves as miracle factories based upon high test scores.  They consume public dollars, refuse public accountability, have astonishing attrition rates usually at the expense of the neediest children enrolled in them, and have formed powerful lobbies to influence politicians to continue to favor charter schools over fully public schools.

This is not to say that none of these schools do a good job of educating the students that they do accommodate and that there are not students and families who are sincerely grateful to be in those schools.  But it does mean that they cannot legitimately claim to have found any “secret sauce” for educating our neediest students when they engage in extreme cream skimming, refuse to let the public examine their finances and rely upon their extremely wealthy patrons to strong arm politicians on their behalf.  To put this in perspective:  In 2012, the NEA spent $13 million in campaign contributions total across the country, and the AFT spent $5.9 million.  Success Academy Charter’s supporters spent $3.6 million in THREE WEEKS just because Mayor de Blasio slowed down the expansion of the network.

Truly working with our neediest takes far more than advertising and cherry-picked student bodies.

4. Arts and the humanities matter

Despite very shaky evidence to back up the claim, we have been treated to nonstop rhetoric about our “crisis” in graduates with STEM degrees, and policy has pushed hard to create more pipelines for people to enter such fields regardless of the actual employment picture for them.  There is, however, evidence that in the age of test based accountability, we have marginalized endeavors that are critical to both our civic life and our general well being.  Social studies instruction has shrunk from 9.5% of instructional time to 7.6%, meaning that our students spend less time today learning history and engaging in critical thinking about their civic life.  While instruction in the English Language Arts has increased because of its status as a tested subject, there are legitimate concerns that the emphasis on reading informational texts in the Common Core State Standards and associated testing, will drive more classrooms away from reading great works of literary fiction and poetry.

And then there is the long term and precipitous decline in arts education which fell below 50% for 18 year olds in their childhood education in 2008.  That means that half of the children in America born in 1990 received no arts education in their entire education K-12.  Research is very clear that participation in the arts has a wide range of academic benefits from higher test scores to higher rates of college completion among low income students.  Eliot Eisner of Stanford University notes the lessons that the arts teach such as: making judgments about relationships, seeing multiple answers to problems, accepting multiple perspectives, complex problem solving, learning that cognition is not limited by language, seeing large effects from small differences, and thinking through materials to fruition of an idea.  It is not hard at all to see the connection between these capacities and the capacities that lead not simply to STEM competencies but also to STEM understanding and innovation.  No wonder, then, that there is a small but growing movement to “move from STEM to STEAM” and place arts at the center of our drive for more STEM education.

While this is admirable, it is also not enough to envision the importance of the arts and humanities as a partner to scientific and technological advancement because they possess their own warrants.  Eisner’s “ten lessons” also include:  teaching children how to say what “cannot be said” via “poetic capacities,” experiencing things that cannot be experienced in any other way and exploring one’s capacity for feeling, symbolizing what is important in society.  The arts and humanities, therefore, enrich us in ways that cannot be measured via test based accountability but which are part of our essential humanity.  That 50% of our young people experience no arts education means that their education was fundamentally inattentive to their humanity.  As we advocate for literature, poetry, music, visual and performing arts for all children, we must remember this — the arts and humanities cannot become yet another preserve of the wealthy and we cannot allow test based accountability to squeeze what is left of them from our public schools.

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Filed under charter schools, Common Core, DFER, politics, schools, Social Justice, Testing, Unions, VAMs