Tag Archives: Bill Gates

How Far Have We Sunk? Pretty Far.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gates

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

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

Kindergarten

 

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

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

What The Election Taught Me About Ed Reformers

It is March, and one of our nation’s historically great political parties is still on track to nominate a lying, bloviating vulgarian with authoritarian policy proposals, a penchant for re-tweeting quotes from Italian Fascist Benito Mussolini , and a reluctance to condemn the Ku Klux Klan.  For many months, political pundits have consistently predicted his campaign’s demise, and his campaign has consistently refused to match their predictions.  What has been truly astonishing has been the silence of the Republican donor class, a group of billionaires who have, until this race, been able to command the obsequiousness of politicians seeking the Republican nomination.   The New York Times recently reported that as long ago as the last Fall, when Mr. Trump’s candidacy was showing far more staying power than was assumed possible, that an anti-Trump super PAC was proposed to help make the candidate unpalatable to voters – but not a single donor stepped forward.

To be sure, getting caught in the line of Mr. Trump’s fire can be catastrophic for regular people.  The Times also highlighted how Trump’s prolific use of Twitter focuses his ire on targets at all levels.  Cheri Jacobus is a Republican strategist and contributor to a number of media outlets, and when she criticized Donald Trump for failing to participate in the last debate before Iowa, he unloaded on her – and was quickly followed by a swarm of his followers who relentlessly attacked her for days.  In the same report, editor of The National Review, Rich Lowry, admitted that even the top Republican donors are afraid to take on Mr. Trump out of fear of his ability to send a tidal wave of negative publicity at them.

It would appear that the donor class, by and large, are cowards.

I can sympathize with a figure like Ms. Jacobus who, despite her reasonably influential political perch, has to fend off social media attacks on her own.  That is no doubt time consuming, highly disruptive, and, worse, stressful given the attacks ranged from merely nasty to outright sexist and vulgar.  But what, exactly, does a man like Sheldon Adelson fear?  Or the Koch brothers?  Or Paul Singer?  People like this have spokesmen for their spokesmen, yet the fear of being mocked on Twitter drove them away from even trying to oppose a man whose influence on the Republican Party they loathe?  More likely, they fear too much attention focused on their quiet, behind the scenes, roles as Kingmakers and agenda setters within the political system.  Daniel Shulman, who has documented the nearly 40 year long effort by the Koch brothers to change American politics via foundations, grants, and backing candidates for office, wrote in Vanity Fair:

One thing that has held the Koch network back so far, in addition to the Trump backers within their ranks, is the concern that taking on Trump would inevitably draw the thin-skinned tycoon’s legendary invective, which it almost certainly would. If the Kochs go after Trump, rest assured that he will take every opportunity to highlight how he’s being attacked by a cabal of billionaires seeking to control the outcome of the election. And this more or less explains their caution to this point. By taking on Trump, the Kochs risk lending credence to his claims of being an outsider who is battling against a corrupt political system rigged by the elites.

Does this sound familiar to supporters of public education today?

It certainly should.  While education reform has been played out in public, the financiers of those efforts have been less fond of the limelight on the whole.  Dr. Diane Ravitch of New York University has frequently called them as “The Billionaire Boys Club” originally referring to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edith Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundations whose efforts coincided over various aspects of education reform in the past 15 years.  That “club” has many more members now, all working in various efforts to transform school via a combination of common standards and high stakes testing, breaking workplace protections for unionized teachers, and pushing for the expansion of school privatization via vouchers and charter schools.  While some journalism has examined the role of big money in education reform, most of these “reformers” prefer to stay out of the spotlight, channeling money through foundations and 501(c) 3 groups, creating astroturf organizations to pose as teachers genuinely interested in corporate reform, buying politicians who force through laws and budgets favorable to their agenda, and hiring public spokespeople to launch splashy legal and web based campaigns to break teachers’ unions.

But the billionaires backing all of this and using the leverage of tremendous wealth to circumvent democratic processes do not, generally speaking, care to do all of this for themselves and go well out of their way to shield their efforts from public scrutiny.  It is hard to forget the scene of former CNN anchor Campbell Brown going to Stephen Colbert’s Comedy Central show to tout her campaign against teacher tenure – and steadfastly refusing to even hint at who was funding her efforts.  Her rationale?  Protesters might bother her benefactors:

CB:Yeah, we are raising money.

SC: And who did you raise it from?

CB: I’m not gonna reveal who the donors are because the people (pointing toward window) are out…

SC: I’m going to respect that because I had a super PAC. [Audience applause.]

CB: I hear you. But, part of the reason is the people who are outside today, trying to protest, trying to silence our parents who want to have a voice in this debate…

SC: Exercising First Amendment rights…

CB: Absolutely, but they’re also going to go after people who are funding this, and I think this is a good cause and an important cause, and if someone wants to contribute to this cause without having to put their name on it so they can become a target of the people who were out there earlier today, then I respect that.

Just to be clear the “people who were out there earlier today” was a small group of mothers and teachers with hand made signs:

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colbert1n-2-web

This pattern is hardly isolated to Campbell Brown’s efforts either.  While hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson is less shy than most about openly explaining his goals of influencing Democratic politicians to adopt privatization goals, his organization, “Democrats” for Education Reform funnels large sums of cash and influence from a variety of sources, mostly groups like the Walton Family Foundation.  When education reform’s paid advocates found that they had trouble responding to public education supporters on social media, former Obama administration DOE official Peter Cunningham was simply granted $12 million dollars to found the “Education Post” to “create a better conversation” but also, in his own words, to create “the ability to swarm” on social media and to “hire” and “subsidize” bloggers. While Bill Gates is far more visible than most financiers of education reform, one of his biggest efforts to date was managing to organize 45 states and D.C. to adopt the Common Core State Standards without most parents or teachers realizing it was happening – by aiming almost entirely at power brokers and foundations in between election cycles.

Wherever you turn in education reform today, you find a think tank, or 501(c)3, or astroturf group, or pseudo-media outlet being paid handsomely to create the public impression of organic support for reformers’ ideas.  Direct and natural engagement with the public is not one of their stronger skill sets.  Which loops back to Republican donors and their unwillingness to confront Donald Trump.  On the one hand, it looks ridiculous that some of the nation’s wealthiest and most influential individuals are so afraid of negative public attention that they dithered for months, but on the other hand given how successfully they have influenced public policy without having to bother with actual democracy and given how bipartisan majorities of American voters already think the system is rigged in favor the ultra-wealthy, it makes sense that those most blatantly manipulating the system would hesitate to step out of the back rooms and into the public’s view.

The good news for advocates of public education is that Trump’s level of ignorant bullying and outright vulgar bigotry is hardly necessary to make education reformers uneasy about scrutiny.  For Campbell Brown, a few teachers and mothers with Sharpies rattled her ability to lie about teachers’ workplace protections on behalf of her donors. Peter Cunningham needed $12 million in foundation cash to pay bloggers to counter the efforts of working teachers with blogs and on social media who are defending their profession for free.  The vast sums of money spent by Bill Gates to prop up and support the Common Core State Standards have not prevented dwindling support among parents and teachers as they grow more familiar with its impact on schools.  Helping to keep light shining on how the donor class is pushing policy without the public’s consent goes hand in hand with the how harmful those policies have been.  They’ve repeatedly shown that they dislike scrutiny.

We have no reason to oblige them.

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Filed under Activism, Common Core, Corruption, DFER, Gates Foundation, politics

The Passion of St. Arne

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will step down at the end of this year, and President Obama has announced that he will be replaced by former New York Commissioner of Education Dr. John King, Jr. as the acting Secretary of Education through the remainder of the administration.  Praising his often embattled Secretary of Education, President Obama said, ““He’s done more to bring our educational system, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the 21st century than anyone else….America will be better off for what he has done.”

We’ll leave that judgement to history.

As is often the case when prominent Washington figures prepare to ride off into the sunset (or out of town under cover of darkness depending on your point of view) it is time for “legacy punditry” to kick into overdrive and attempt to place Secretary Duncan in history.  Most of it is premature.  Quite a lot of it is insipid. And much of it just cannot resist creating a “balanced” narrative whether it is honest or not, which is where, Secretary Arne Duncan, Martyr of the Intransigent Teacher Unions comes into play.  Michael Grunwald of Politico.com wrote just such a piece last week, explaining the the choice of John King signals that President Obama has no intention of backing off any controversial reforms and strongly emphasizing union opposition to both Secretary Duncan and his chosen successor:

Duncan has been the public face of those differences; the National Education Association called for his resignation, while the American Federation of Teachers put him on an “improvement plan” like the ones school reformers have endorsed for incompetent teachers. He is leaving with U.S. graduation rates at an all-time high and dropout rates at an all-time low, but there has been a growing bipartisan backlash over some of his favored reforms, like the Common Core math and reading standards (derided as “Obamacore” by many conservatives) or the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations (derided as “test-and-punish” by unions). I recently mentioned to Duncan that it seems like the main theme uniting his reforms has been the idea that adults in the education system should be held accountable for making sure kids learn. “Just a little bit!” he responded.

That is, shall we say, a very charitable explanation of the central themes in Secretary Duncan’s reform portfolio of Common Core standards, high stakes testing, value added measures in teacher assessment, and favoritism for charter schools despite the ongoing and shocking series of scandals coming out of the sector.  Another way of explaining the Arne Duncan is approach is to ratchet up expectations without increasing supports, mistake things that are harder with things that are better, work hand in hand with one billionaire’s vision of education reform to push through or coerce over 40 states to adopt new standards largely written in secret, and ignore growing mountains of evidence that growth measures from standardized tests are not suited for individual teacher evaluation.  So while Mr. Grunwald may be right to point out union exasperation with Mr. Duncan and concern about his successor, there is a hell of a lot of context to that exasperation that is left out as he tries to balance his piece with current critics of both men.

So let me state it very clearly:  Secretary Duncan in Washington and Commissioner King in New York absolutely were not victims of the teacher unions.  They are victims of their own bull headed insistence in backing abjectly harmful policies even as the evidence mounted that they are harmful.

But that does not make a traditional Washington narrative where if there is one side, there must be an equal and equivalent other side, so the story of President Obama’s embattled Secretary of Education and his soon to be embattled next Secretary of Education is one where the reform side faces implacable resistance from unions seeking to maintain the status quo at all costs.  It is true that the National Education Association called for Arne Duncan’s resignation, and it is true that the American Federation of Teachers put him on a metaphorical improvement plan — last year.  After years of trying to work with education reform.

Both the NEA and AFT were early supporters of the Common Core State Standards and maintain high levels of support for the standards themselves to this day.  The NEA maintains this website on the CCSS, including a “ten facts” section that could have been penned by David Coleman himself, and the AFT is equally optimistic going back to a 2011 resolution urging good implementation.  Both national unions took initially positive views of potentially using student test score data as part of a “multiple measures” approach to teacher evaluation.  Part of the AFT’s 2010 statement on teacher evaluation and labor-management relations reads:

AFT teacher eval 2010

And from the NEA’s 2011 policy statement:

NEA teacher eval 2011

While both unions have repeatedly warned Secretary Duncan and the Obama administration that the push for more and more standardized testing was risking the entire education reform agenda, both unions were cooperative early on with key elements of education reform from the Obama White House: Common Core State Standards and the use of standardized testing data aligned with those standards in teacher evaluation.  It just so happens that these were key components in the White House’s Race to the Top grant competition and were conditions that had to be met to be granted waivers from the worst consequences of No Child Left Behind.  It also just so happens that another person, outside of the Cabinet, was pushing hard to get people on board to support the Common Core standards and growth models based on standardized tests:

Bill Gates

Not for nothing, both unions and their respective leaders at the time were listed as “important partners” when the Gates Foundation in 2009 announced $290 million in grants to 4 major school districts across the country to “develop and implement new approaches, strategies, and policies, including adopting better measures of teacher effectiveness that include growth in student achievement and college readiness; using those measures to boost teacher development, training, and support; tying tenure decisions more closely to teacher effectiveness measures and rewarding highly effective teachers through new career and compensation opportunities that keep them in the classroom; strengthening school leadership; and providing incentives for the most effective teachers to work in the highest-need schools and classrooms.”  The same announcement included the plan to spend $45 million on the Measures of Effective Teaching study – more or less to buy the research saying growth measures based on test data can be used in teacher evaluation and which, well, comes to that conclusion via some seriously dubious reasoning.  President of the AFT, Randi Weingarten, eventually backtracked from the support of growth measures in teacher evaluation, saying “VAM is a sham,” but this was in 2014, long after flaws with the Measures of Effective Teaching study’s conclusion began to be obvious.

So let’s be very clear: far from being antagonists to the Obama White House on education reform, the national teacher unions were key partners in critical elements of it from early on.  If Secretary Duncan’s simply G-d awful oversight of those initiatives (thoughtfully organized for careful consumption by Jersey Jazzman here) finally turned those organizations against him by 2014, it is strange to place union opposition at the center of the story.  In fact, despite the increased criticism and despite the late support for the parental Opt Out movement, teacher unions are STILL keeping their biggest leverage at bay.  Both the NEA and the AFT have already endorsed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for President despite her long standing connections with figures like John Podesta, who is running her campaign and was the founder of the Center for American Progress, a left of center think tank that is reliably in the pro-reform camp.  Further, with a few high visibility exceptions like the Chicago and Seattle strikes, neither union has been eager to take to the streets in opposition to the Duncan education agenda.  You don’t have to take my word for it, either.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics has an historic table of labor actions by any group of workers over 1000. The average public school teacher to pupil ratio in 2011 was 16 to 1 (this includes special education teachers and teachers of non-core classes), and there are 453 school districts in the country with more than 16,000 students – meaning if their teacher workforce went on strike, they’d be recorded in the BLM tables.  Considering how the education reforms most embraced by Secretary Duncan and the Obama administration have played out most contentiously in our large urban school systems, wouldn’t we be embroiled in job actions across the country if the AFT and NEA were the kind of opposition imagined by Michael Grunwald in his Politico piece?

I am sure that Secretary Duncan and his supporters both in the White House and in the education reform community would like to invoke the image of a martyr in a passion play, set upon by self interested forces seeking to maintain their privilege at the expense of the nation’s children.  But our national teacher unions do not fit that bill.  Far from opposing the reforms proposed from the Obama Department of Education, they embraced large portions of it and offered mainly precautions rather than opposition on other parts.  While elements of reform policies from this administration were involved in the Chicago Teacher Strike in 2012, there simply has not been labor unrest promoted by the AFT and NEA in the past 6 years.  Discontent among rank and file teachers has been growing in recent years, but union leadership did not really turn the corner on Arne Duncan until 2014. Value added measures are so poorly suited for teacher evaluation that the American Statistical Association urged policy makers not to use them, but AFT President Randi Weingarten’s opposition to VAMs preceded the ASA statement by only 3 months.

The reality is that Arne Duncan and John King did not merely run afoul of national and state level teacher unions – after years of doggedly pursuing policies that harm teaching – they ran afoul of parents and lawmakers as well.  Key aspects of Duncan and King’s favorite reforms are not favored by Americans and by parents even less so.  While charter schools enjoy public support, the Common Core standards, standardized testing, and using test data to evaluate teachers are widely viewed negatively.  67% of public school parents agree there is too much emphasis on standardized tests, and 80% of public school parents said student engagement was “very important” for measuring effectiveness compared to only 14% who said the same about test scores. 63% of public school parents disapprove of using standardized tests to evaluate teachers.

I’m not the only one noticing a theme here, right?  The problems that faced Arne Duncan and which John King faced in New York and will now face on a national level are problems born of loss of trust from parents, key stakeholders in education who turned around between 2009 and 2014 to find huge portions of their schools changing without even the least effort to include them in the conversation.  Secretary Duncan’s tin ear on these matters is almost legendary, but his successor may actually be worse, if that is possible. Dr. King could never communicate effectively with parents, leading to disastrous public meetings, and his refusal to discuss issues or entertain other viewpoints led lawmakers to bipartisan calls for his removal from office.  Mr. Grundwald’s piece in Politico suggests that Dr. King’s problem in New York were mainly with the union, but he fails to acknowledge that he left Albany just ahead of an angry mob of parents and legislators.

Sadly, it is the very background that Mr. Grunwald suggests should help Dr. King repair relationships with the nation’s teachers that actually prevents him from doing so.  Dr. King’s background story includes the loss of his teacher mother at a young age and his crediting teachers for turning around his life (Peter Greene rightly wonders if those same Brooklyn teachers, working under Dr. King’s policy environment, would have the room to set aside pacing guides and practice tests to nurture a child in need).  His allies in reform took to Twitter with #ISupportJohnKing to tout his life in education, but his particular life in education left him sorely unprepared for his role as NY Commissioner and even less prepared to be Secretary of Education.  Dr. King taught for three years, only one of them in a fully public school.  He then helped to found Roxbury Prep charter school in Boston before helping to found the Uncommon School network of no excuses charter schools, which relies heavily on out of school suspensions far in excess of local schools where they operate.  As a “no excuses” chain, Uncommon Schools can employ discipline methods disallowed by public schools and parents have no say if they disagree.  Dr. King was tapped from this sector to become Deputy Commissioner in New York and then ascended to the Commissioner’s office in 2011 at the age of 36.

Dr. King has almost no experience in his career where he was answerable to parents and the overlapping constituencies that are stakeholders in public education.  His style of charter school is almost entirely private in operation and parents unhappy with the way the school operates have no input via elected boards. He never served as principal of a fully public school or as a superintendent in a public school district where he was answerable to different people with sometimes opposing interests that needed to find compromise.  That lack of experience was evident in New York state as he increasingly avoided engaging parents and legislators, and there is no reason to believe he will change in the Secretary’s office.  While our new Secretary of Education will certainly be in for tough times from the national teacher unions, he will undoubtedly be in for equally or worse rough times from parents.

Inflexible unions versus the earnest reformers makes for good copy.  But it isn’t even half the story.

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Filed under Arne Duncan, charter schools, Common Core, John King, politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

None. Zip. Nada. Bupkas.

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

It doesn’t work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paving The Road to Hell — And Other Gates Foundation Initiatives

Towards the end of last year, the Seattle Times provided coverage of the Gates Foundation’s report on the tenth anniversary of its global health initiative. After a decade of effort and a billion dollars invested, Bill Gates admitted that despite the investment he had been “pretty naive” about how long it would take to significantly improve public health outcomes in the developing world. Most notable was Gates’ admission that the problems in his approach were not merely ones about overcoming scientific hurdles, but rather they seriously underestimated the challenges of implementing highly technological “solutions” in countries where the majority of the population lack secure access to routine infrastructure which, in the words of Dr. David McCoy of Queen Mary University in London, are “the barriers to existing solutions.”

Both Peter Greene of the Curmudgucation blog and Anthony Cody of Living in Dialogue have written excellent pieces on this somewhat quiet but very important admission by Bill Gates.  Greene astutely notes that Gates’ realization of his limitations does not actually lead him to understand why his approach is flawed:

Gates wants to use systems to change society, but his understanding of how humans and culture and society and communities change is faulty. It’s not surprising that Gates is naive– it’s surprising that he is always naive in the same way. It always boils down to “I really thought people would behave differently.” And although I’ve rarely seen him acknowledge it print, it also boils down to, “There were plenty of people who could have told me better, but I didn’t listen to them.”

The non-success of Grand Challenges is just like the failure of the Gates Common Core initiative. Gates did not take the time to do his homework about the pre-existing structures and systems. He did not value the expertise of people already working in the field, and so he did not consult it or listen to it. He put an unwarranted faith in his created systems, and imagined that they would prevail because everyone on the ground would be easily assimilated into the new imposed-from-outside system. He became frustrated by peoples’ insistence on seeing things through their own point-of-view rather than his. And he spent a huge amount of money attempting to impose his vision on everybody else.

This is an important observation because it shows that there is a flawed perspective rooted at the heart of the Gates Foundation, and while the man and the institution may be able to recognize failures, they are not inclined to understand why they have failed.  Anthony Cody also recognizes this observation as he lines up quotes from the central figures at the Gates Foundation that demonstrate little regard for the knowledge about teaching held by teachers and wonders if the “humility” earned in Grand Challenges project will translate to humility about the foundation’s approach to education reform.  I believe that Greene and Cody are completely on point and insightful in their observations and questions on these points, and it is important for people outside the Gates Foundation to constantly remind it that education is a complex and interconnected set of systems with knowledgeable and invested stakeholders that cannot simply be plowed over and disregarded without consequences.

A specific quote from Melinda Gates cited by Mr. Cody struck me in particular, and I believe it highlights some of the difficulties we face in enticing the Gates’ and their namesake foundation to listen.  Cody quotes Mrs. Gates from 2011:

It may surprise you–it was certainly surprising to us–but the field of education doesn’t know very much at all about effective teaching. We have all known terrific teachers. You watch them at work for 10 minutes and you can tell how thoroughly they’ve mastered the craft. But nobody has been able to identify what, precisely, makes them so outstanding.

This ignorance has serious ramifications. We can’t give teachers the right kind of support because there’s no way to distinguish the right kind from the wrong kind. We can’t evaluate teaching because we are not consistent in what we’re looking for. We can’t spread best practices because we can’t capture them in the first place.

Asserting that “the field of education doesn’t know very much at all about effective teaching” is one of those statements most frequently made by people who do not want to have to bother with how much information there is that refutes the statement.  However, if Mrs. Gates wants to fill herself in on what the “field of education” knows about effective teaching, she could begin with the 4th edition of The Handbook of Research on Teaching.  It might even be worth her while to read the third edition, see if a full version of the second edition is available, and then finish up with the original publication from 1963.  A fifth edition was supposed to published in 2014, but it seems that the editors are taking some extra time to be careful with it.

Then, for kicks, she might want to talk to some of America’s working teachers and see if they know anything as well.

Of course, knowing this field as I do, I suspect that someone who has been working in the technocratic solutions domain for this many years will still object that the multiple 1000s of pages of research on teaching to which I have referred still won’t tell us what “effective teaching” is.  Researching education is, by necessity, working with a “soft field” where you are unlikely to find absolute answers to your questions.  What we know changes as related fields like psychology build their knowledge base, and ideas can circulate in and out of favor as what schools are expected to do evolves with societal priorities.  Most importantly, research on teaching has to consider how variable the 100,000 schools and millions of classrooms across the country are and how that variability influences the teaching that is both possible and that is needed.  We are not engineering within the parameters of Newtonian physics, and that is appropriate.

Mrs. Gates’ other assertion that “you watch them (great teachers) at work for 10 minutes and you can tell how thoroughly they’ve mastered the craft” (but, gosh darn it, we just don’t know why they are so great!) is the kind of statement made by people who really don’t understand teaching.  Of course, there are great teachers, and, of course, you can be impressed by them fairly quickly, but to say that you KNOW someone has thoroughly “mastered the craft” in ten minutes is romantic in the style of teachers whose lives have been edited by Hollywood.  What does Mrs. Gates risk missing in her ten minute assessment?

  • The lesson that worked very well in the first period but worked far less well in the third period.
  • The day when the lesson plan was simply off base.
  • The work that teacher did outside of the classroom determining what students knew, selecting teaching and learning strategies that would help them build upon that, figuring out what would help the teacher know the students had learned.
  • ANY of the uncertainty in the previously described process and the necessity to pivot if that uncertainty disrupts the plan.
  • How the teacher self assesses and with what information.
  • The week when that teacher has sick children at home, cannot get enough sleep, and has little time to plan.
  • The week disrupted by excessive standardized testing or mandatory field tests of examinations.
  • ANYTHING, really, beyond being impressed by Razzle Dazzle without thinking about substance.

Mrs. Gates’ comment makes the most sense to me if she is unaware of the level of work that goes into lending that impressive ten minutes substance, and if she is not especially discerning about whether or not the substance exists.  In fact, in ten minutes, it is sadly easy to be taken in by weak teaching that is buoyed by personality.  I witnessed this early in my teacher education career when I supervised a student teacher who I eventually had to counsel out of the profession.  She was an intelligent young woman, but she was not up to the task of leading a classroom even on her best day and simply could not gain student attention.  What was interesting, however, was how her struggles demonstrated the weaknesses of her cooperating teacher, a 20 year veteran who, with only ten minutes to watch her, would have impressed an outside observer.  She was a dynamic personality who kept the energy level of her class high, but when her student teacher took over the lesson plans, the thinness of the teaching was painfully obvious over time.  Visit after visit, I witnessed the same teaching approach of presentation and then practice via seat work, and it was clear that the only reason the teaching I first saw SEEMED skilled was the personal energy of the cooperating teacher.  The situation became awkward as my shy and hesitant student teacher made obvious the thin planning that went into the classroom.

Mrs Gates’ ten minute observation would have, most likely, been taken in by the Razzle Dazzle:

…and missed whether or not there was substance.  For that matter, Mrs. Gates’ ten minutes would miss a lot of genuinely great teachers simply having an inevitable bad day.

The problem here is complicated and frustrating.  Melinda Gates’ comment demonstrates first, that the Gates Foundation does not really understand (or is dismissive of) the real complexities and uncertainties involved in being a “great teacher,” and second, that the foundation thinks it can ultimately identify precisely WHAT makes their teaching “great” and distribute that throughout the teaching corps.  Instead of appreciating that research on teaching is various because teaching itself is various, the foundation’s leadership seems wedded to an idea that we need singular answers scaled throughout the entire system.

It reminds me of some of the mixed-bag innovations from the Progressive era which, contrary to popular imagination, was not all trust busting, union victories, and establishment of national parks.  Consider “scientific management” that arose from the work of Frederick Taylor and which greatly influenced how factory work was conceived.  Taylor studied work flow to determine the “best” ways for laborers to perform their tasks, and much of what he determined was useful for productivity and workers themselves.  For example, he concluded that workers needed rest periods which was not an accepted practice at the time.  However, faith in “Taylorism” rapidly overstated its ability to scale up the “best” way to do certain tasks, leading to conflicts with workers themselves, such as the famous incident at the Watertown Arsenal when one molder sparked a mass walk out in response to being timed by a stop watch.  While scientific management survives in different incarnations today, Taylorism itself was more geared towards the automation of tasks since workers were not allowed to vary how they did their work once “innovations” were put into place.

I’ve come to think that the Gates Foundation suffers from a similar problem: armed with an interesting and worthwhile question – “How can we identify and support great teaching?” – they have approached it as a technocratic matter instead of as a sociological one.  In doing so, they have vastly overestimated the strength of their tools and vastly underestimated the knowledge and the agency of what they hoped to reform.  The result is rapidly devolving into a discordant mess of overlapping perverse incentives that mistake common standards with a platform for effective teaching, treat standardized test scores as strongly indicative of teacher impact, and encourage teaching narrowly to the tested curriculum. Teachers and parents are increasingly reacting much the same way that the early 20th century workers did when told their ideas mattered less than a supervisor with a stop watch.

We’ve paved roads like this before, and the destinations were not exactly what was hoped for.

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Filed under Common Core, Gates Foundation, Stories, Testing

More than Half of America’s School Children Qualify for Free or Reduced Lunch

I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about “Where do we go from here?” that we must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. (Yes) There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. (Yes) And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. (Yes) But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. (All right) It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, “Who owns the oil?” (Yes) You begin to ask the question, “Who owns the iron ore?” (Yes) You begin to ask the question, “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?” (All right) These are words that must be said. (All right)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. August 16, 1967 “Where Do We Go From Here?”

On January 16th, The Washington Post ran a story by Lyndsey Layton about a new report finding that slightly more than half of all American public school students now come from officially low income families. The headline stating those children come from “poor” families was slightly misleading as qualifying for reduced lunch does not require that a family be at the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) which is $23,850 for a family of four. Families qualify for free meals at school at 130% of the FPL ($31,005 for a family of 4), and they qualify for reduced lunch at 185% of the FPL ($44,123 for a family of 4).  However, the reality is that almost half of our public school students live in poverty, near poverty, and low income conditions.  This has dramatic implications for them and for the schools in which they study.

Poverty acts as a third rail in American policy discussions, and it often feels that recognizing the reality for people who live in poverty or near poverty is immediately treated as an attack on American ideals of a meritocratic society.  Reality, however, remains reality, and the deep impacts of poverty upon young people are known.  The 1997 Princeton Study is nearly 20 years old and clearly demonstrated the health, cognitive, educational, and behavioral differences that can be attributed to growing up in poverty.  More recently, the  30 year long Baltimore study reported how intensely stubborn poverty is and how unlikely it is for a child born into poverty to move into the middle class or higher.  Recent research also notes that in addition to long known advantages of higher income families such as educational resources, a poor child who does “everything right” is still barely MORE likely to be economically successful that a rich child who drops out of school – and both are equally likely to be in the lowest quintile of income earners:

Poor-Grads-Rich-Dropouts

As equally troubling as these findings is the difficulty in any prospect of fixing them by current opportunities.  While going to college remains a viable way to maintain economic position for most attendees, it is not because wages for such graduates have been rising to meet inflation or a job market demand for such workers.  Wages for current college graduates is not much higher than it was in the mid-1980s, but the wage premium for a college degree has grown because of the collapse of wages for workers without a college education:

SDT-higher-education-02-11-2014-0-03

In addition, the lower middle class, historically an important rung on the economic ladder, is not merely struggling; iis largely stay afloat only because of federal transfer programs that take the edge off of their stagnant and falling wages — even as they tend to pay the largest marginal tax rates of all income groups.  The conclusion here is one that has only recently pushed into margins of the mainstream:  it is extremely difficult for individuals and families to move up the economic ladder when several rungs have been sawn off…and individuals and families who slip from the lower middle rung to the bottom have few opportunities to regain security.

All of which makes our current educational “reforms” staggeringly galling, immoral even.  Reformers have been touting for years now changes to our educational commons that involve turning as many neighborhood public schools in charter schools as possible, measuring all success and failures in school by standardized test scores, and attacking the workplace protections of teachers as the only way to “guarantee” that every child has an excellent teacher.  In doing so they literally ignore all the ways in which poverty’s deprivations impact school, and they place upon public school all of the responsibility to boost students’ economic fortunes.  Unexamined?  Tax and trade policies that make it possible for just 4 hedge fund managers to earn more income in a single year than every single Kindergarten teacher in America combined.  Corporations whose business models do not include paying full time employees enough money to avoid going on public assistance.  Wages for most workers that have barely moved in real purchasing power since the mid-1960s. That concentration of income means that 10% of income earners now make more than half of all income in America.  Education “reformers” demand that “fixing” that should rest entirely upon America’s education system — even as their allies in state capitols around the country have played budget games to keep from raising taxes on the wealthy.  In New York State, that amounts to billions of dollars of year that Albany pledged but never delivered to local public schools.

Only in America would education “reform” be millionaires (Campbell Brown, Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein) working for billionaires (Whitney Tilson, Rupert Murdoch, Eli Broad, the Walton family, Bill Gates) to convince poor and lower middle class communities that the problems in education and economic opportunity for their children rest entirely upon the barely middle class teachers in their local schools.

Professor Yohuru Williams of Fairfield University notes that those same “reformers” have taken up the mantle of civil rights in their demands that school be responsible for providing all the opportunity for children in poverty — usually as cover for schemes that privatize more and more of our educational commons.  Dr. Williams takes issue with their adoption of Dr. King for their cause:

For King, the Beloved Community was a global vision of human cooperation and understanding where all peoples could share in the abundant resources of the planet. He believed that universal standards of human decency could be used to challenge the existence of poverty, famine, and economic displacement in all of its forms. A celebration of achievement and an appreciation of fraternity would blot out racism, discrimination, and distinctions of any kind that sought to divide rather than elevate people—no matter what race, religion, or test score. The Beloved Community promoted international cooperation over competition. The goal of education should be not to measure our progress against the world but to harness our combined intelligence to triumph over the great social, scientific, humanistic, and environmental issues of our time.

While it seeks to claim the mantle of the movement and Dr. King’s legacy, corporate education reform is rooted in fear, fired by competition and driven by division. It seeks to undermine community rather than build it and, for this reason, it is the ultimate betrayal of the goals and values of the movement.

This observation is especially important today on the date set aside for reflection on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and on the work that is left unfinished from his movement.  One of the most glaring unfinished task today is the poverty and near poverty that afflicts over half of our students in public education.  Accompanying that is the coordinated campaign of deflection and misdirection by our current generation of education “reformers” who want to pitch community members against each and against public education while the policy makers and the oligarchs who influence them most heavily continue to ignore the wishes of bi-partisan majorities in the electorate.

It is well past time that we revoked their appropriation of Dr. King’s mantle.  It belongs with those who want our nation to finally confront poverty, not with those who blame public school for the decisions of the powerful.

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Filed under Activism, Corruption, politics, Social Justice

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

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

What Education “Reformers” Do Not Understand About Teaching and Learning

It is often hard to understand the disconnect that seems to exist between the belief of prominent figures in education reform and the reality of teaching in America’s classrooms.  For example, at the end of September, Politico published an interview with self appointed education reformer Bill Gates, whose documented support for the Common Core State Standards, mass high stakes testing, teacher evaluations tied to testing and charter schools has greatly influenced the reform landscape of the past decade.  Gates, perhaps taking part in the efforts of reformers to have a “new conversation” to save the Common Core, treads familiar territory for himself in this interview.  Previously, he called upon teachers to defend the Common Core by appealing to its obvious utility and comparing it to industry standardization:

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

If states use common academic standards, the quality of classroom materials and professional development will improve, Gates said. Much of that material will be digital tools that are personalized to the student, he said. “To get this innovation out, common standards will be helpful,” he said.

He sounds off on similar themes in the Politico article, stating, ““Should Georgia have a different railroad width than anybody else? Should they teach multiplication in a different way? Oh, that’s brilliant. Who came up with that idea?”  Let me pause for a moment and give the technology mogul his due.  In industry, he is correct that standardized platforms for, say, delivering useful electricity from a wall socket, help spur technological innovations that make consumers’ lives better.  However, let me also state that the question of how to teach a child multiplication or how to read is vastly more complicated and has infinitely more variables than the question of how to attach an electric motor to a hand blender.

And besides, as teacher and blogger Peter Green notes, Gates simply does not understand the parameters of his metaphor and why it does not apply to teaching and learning.  Green writes:

Railroad gauges and plug configurations are, within certain engineering requirements, fairly arbitrary choices. Had railroad gauges been set a few inches wider or a few inches, it would not matter. The purpose of setting a standard is not to impose a choice that’s a better choice for the rails, but to impose a choice that makes all the rails work as parts of a larger whole. Within certain extremes, there’s no bad choice for gauge width; the actual width of the gauge matters less than the uniformity.

Decisions about educational standards are not arbitrary. Some educational choices are better than others, and those choices matter in and of themselves. The choice of standards matters far more than the uniformity. Human children are not in school for the primary purpose of being fitted to become part of a larger whole. Imposing a bad standards choice simply to have uniformity is a disastrous choice, but that is what the Common Core has done– sacrificed good standards in order to have uniformity, which is not even a desirable goal for human children in the first place.

Green’s point here should be crystal clear to anyone who is either connected to schooling or willing to think like those involved:  standards in education have to pay far more attention to the quality and impact of the standards than the standard of railroad gauges or electrical outlets have to because while a rail car can run along a track whatever size it is or a blender can draw electricity from an outlet regardless of its organization, a bad standard, if incentivized coercively enough will flow into instructional materials, teacher planning and assessments.  At the end of that journey, it will still be a bad standard regardless of standardization.

But even good standards are not guaranteed to leverage change in the classroom unless they are approached in manners that offer genuine support, collaboration and authentic buy in from the teachers involved in implementing them.  David Cohen, writing 24 years ago about efforts to enact mathematics reforms, presented the case of “Mrs. Oublier” in which he demonstrated that even with a teacher who was sincerely enthusiastic about teaching students to understand rather than to recite mathematics, her lack of fully understanding the conceptual changes to mathematics and her lack of a community of teachers continually working on their understanding led her to very questionable “reform” of her teaching.  Change was a three-legged stool, and with only one leg, her enthusiasm, Mrs. O was unable to really change.  The Common Core  so enthusiastically embraced by Bill Gates has the exact same problem on steroids.  Rushed in development and implementation, the standards are hardly uniformly excellent, supporting materials, similarly rushed, often confuse more than assist teachers, students, and parents in understanding expectations, and teachers have had no choice but to “buy in” to the reforms as states were required to use tests aligned with common standards if they wanted to drink at the trough of Race to the Top.  Nothing about this enterprise has demonstrated the least understanding of what it means to teach and to learn to teach.

In some ways, however, this is not a surprise.  Few of the current proponents of education reform have any classroom experience, and their knowledge of teaching and learning comes from their experiences as students in K-12 education.  Over a 13 year primary and secondary education, that translates to roughly 15,000 hours spent watching teachers teach.  No other college educated profession is so visible to the public as teachers are, and after so much time spent in the company of teachers teaching, vast swaths of the public think that they know what it is that teachers do.  Dan Lortie, in his seminal 1975 book “Schoolteacher: a Sociological Study,” dubbed this the “apprenticeship of observation,” which is largely responsible for the preconceived notions about teachers and teaching that most prospective teachers bring to their preparation.  These notions, while sincerely held and personally important to future teachers, are often simplistic and owe their formation to the narrow view of teaching one can glean simply by observing its most public performances in the classroom.  Development of content mastery, knowledge of students and their individual and collective needs as learners, a richly differentiated pedagogical repertoire that assists in transforming content into something that prompts learning, effectively managing the classroom learning environment, a reflective disposition that considers quantitative and qualitative input about how well students have learned and adjusts plans accordingly — none of that is truly visible to those who sit on the student side of the classroom except in how it is enacted in 40-60 minute long performances.

Untangling those visions of teaching and learning is one of the most interesting and difficult tasks of teacher education.  Even though much of what my students have learned from their time in K-12 school is superficial, quite a lot of it is deeply precious to them.  It is built upon the experience of working with beloved and respected teachers, and it comes from their own genuine enthusiasm for the experiences they had with content in those classrooms.  Our work in teacher education has to involve respecting that, helping students deconstruct their experiences so that they can see the craft involved in teaching, and prompting them to build upon rather than to destroy the visions with which they arrive.  I love this work, but I also recognize how difficult it can be for my students to make that journey in their time with us.  For starters, I do not have 15,000 hours in which to help them critically reflect upon their time in school, build more powerful visions of teaching and learning and teach them the pedagogical knowledge they need to enact those visions.  I have 30 credit hours, four field internships and student teaching.  Nested between the apprenticeship of observation and a, hopefully, long career teaching, university teacher education is necessarily a time when we demand a lot of prospective teachers so that they may best assist their future students.  Their journey to “the other side of the desk” is complex and packed.

It is a journey that Bill Gates has never taken himself, and I think it contributes to his almost entirely mechanistic approach to education reform: make everyone use the same thing, force compliance from teachers through assessment, wait for “innovation” to flow into the classroom via third party vendors all developing products for the same standards, and assume that everyone will get a high quality product at the end of the process.  Even if his assumptions are correct, teachers, and their learning, are left out of the process.  If learning to teach is a complex and iterative process involving close examination of preexisting ideas and critical evaluation of oneself, then learning to teach a reformed set of standards is not any less complex.  Consider again David Cohen’s lessons from Mrs. Oublier: even a teacher enthusiastic about the vision of teaching and learning embodied in a new set of standards needs far more than her enthusiasm and a new set of curriculum materials, and without a complete and robust effort to relearn how she saw mathematics and a community working together to help each other in that task, she fell far short.

This is not an implementation issue, so much as it is a perspective issue.  In the Politico interview, Gates talks about how standardizing teaching of multiplication across states is as obvious as standardizing railroads, and he calls standardization of learning at each grade level merely a “technocratic issue.”  He speaks admiringly of Asian countries that have “nice, thin textbooks,” and he calls the previous education landscape a “cacophony” simply because states had various standards.  And he also says that the standards mean that all students will be taught on what they will be tested, and “we should have great curriculum material.”  This harkens back to his previously quoted March call for teachers to “defend the core” where he promised standardization would lead to better materials.  Again, the teachers and teacher learning are missing from this process.

And that is because Bill Gates has never taught nor has he ever embarked upon the journey from student to teacher.

Despite having undertaken the task of reforming American education, Bill Gates does not understand the least thing about what it takes to become a teacher, nor does he understand the least thing about promoting teacher learning throughout the teaching career.  His reform choices and the elements that he continuously talks up as “reform” make the most sense if he thinks of teaching as the enactment of materials in the classroom, without sufficient comprehension of the long process of learning to teach that only begins with observations and assumptions gleaned from lengthy contact with teachers in classrooms.  These are assumptions about practice and how to bring about meaningful and positive change that no ed reformer would presume to make about the practice of doctors or attorneys, but they make it about teachers and learning.

And it is a big part of the reason why their enterprise is faltering.  You cannot reform what you do not understand.

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Filed under Common Core, Gates Foundation, schools