Tag Archives: College and Career Readiness

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

Dear Senator Gillibrand:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

Daniel Katz, Ph.D.

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

Chester Finn and the Death of Kindergarten

Chester E. Finn, Jr. has been an influential figure in American education reform for a long time now.  President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank supporting most elements of today’s reform environment, former fellow at the Manhattan and Hudson Institutes, founding partner with the for profit school turned for profit school management organization Edison Project, former Assistant Secretary of Education for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, former Professor of Education at Vanderbilt University, and former chair of the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) governing board, Dr. Finn has been a staple of the education reform landscape for decades.  According to his former colleague, Dr. Diane Ravitch of New York University, Dr. Finn has long held a low opinion of the quality of achievement in American education and has long wanted Americans to realize how poorly educated our children are.

And now it is Kindergarten’s turn.

Writing for the Fordham commentary website, Dr. Finn reports on the results of Maryland’s new “Kindergarten readiness” test administered individually by teachers and now available for the general public.  Dr. Finn, recently appointed to the Maryland State Board of Education, describes the results as “revealing and sobering”:

The assessment is individually administered by kindergarten teachers and was given this year to all of the Old Line State’s sixty-seven thousand kindergartners. The results are sorted into three bands, politely labeled “demonstrating readiness,” “developing readiness,” and “emerging readiness.” But only the first of these means actually ready to succeed in kindergarten—and slightly fewer than half of Maryland’s entering kindergartners met that standard.

Which is to say that more than half are not ready. This report candidly displays the results not just for the state as a whole, but also for each of Maryland’s twenty-four local districts—and further disaggregated in all the ways we have come to expect and demand in the NCLB era.

Every which way you look, you see gaps. And often the gaps are alarmingly wide—by district, by race, by income, and more. You may not be surprised, but you ought to be alarmed and energized. Children who enter school without what they need to succeed in kindergarten are destined to have great difficulty catching up, even in schools that do their utmost. It’s not impossible, but it’s very hard.

Allow me to give Dr. Finn half of a loaf here.  Early advantages matter for long term educational outcomes, although many critics have written about whether that is because of specific deficits in certain student populations or because schools systemically valorize  the cultural capital already possessed by society’s elites.  It is curious to me that Dr. Finn calls the results of the Kindergarten readiness test “revealing” because the finding of gaps between subgroups of students is entirely predictable based on what we know about poverty and its long lasting impacts.  Maryland has a total poverty rate under 10%, but 14% of its children live below the poverty line and another 17% live between the Federal Poverty Level and 200% of the Federal Poverty Level ($47,700 for a family of four).  So that is 31% of the children in Maryland living either below the poverty line or within striking distance of it.  The 1997 Princeton Study, The Effects of Poverty on Children, clearly documented how poverty in early childhood has long lasting impacts on physical, cognitive, school achievement, and emotional/behavioral development, so for Dr. Finn to say the results of the new Maryland assessment are “revealing” rather “confirming what we already know” is rhetorically nonsensical.

It is also nonsensical for Dr. Finn to say that HALF of Maryland’s children are not “ready” for Kindergarten (a term that is not actually defined or defended in his article), when the scale as reported is “demonstrating readiness” – “developing readiness” – “emerging readiness”.  According to the actual state report, not provided by Dr. Finn, 47% of Kindergarten students were found to be “demonstrating readiness”, 36% were “developing readiness”, and 17% were only at “emerging readiness”.  These terms are defined in the report as follows:

Demonstrating Readiness – a child demonstrates the foundational skills and behaviors that prepare him/her for curriculum based on the Kindergarten standards.

Developing Readiness – a child exhibits some of the foundational skills and behaviors that prepare him/her for curriculum based on the Kindergarten standards.

Emerging Readiness – a child displays minimal foundational skills and behaviors that prepare him/her for curriculum based on the Kindergarten standards.

And how does a teacher giving this assessment determine that?  Maryland provides a vague and unhelpful website for the public, but there are a few sample rubrics. Here is one for an observational item:

K rubric

So, a five year-old child “requires adult guidance to select the best idea and then put it into action” and to Dr. Chester Finn, THAT is evidence that the child is “not ready” for Kindergarten – rather than just normal evidence of a 5 year-old.

Interestingly, just one year ago, 83% of Maryland Kindergarten children were found to be “ready,” the precise sum of this year’s combined “demonstrating readiness” and “developing readiness.”  I’m sure THAT wasn’t deliberate at all.

And that’s the crux of the matter.  It would be one thing to develop high quality individualized assessment instruments that Maryland Kindergarten teachers could use to get snapshots of their incoming students and to fully individualize instruction or to use targeted interventions for some students.  It is an entirely different thing to redefine “Kindergarten readiness” to mean that 5 year-olds must engage in complex problem solving with no adult assistance and select “the best idea” (note the use of a definite article which narrows the number of correct ideas down to one) and then to publicize this as “evidence” that over half of our 5 year-olds are deficient.  In the pursuit of observing “the best idea” to solve a problem, how many entirely appropriate but fanciful ideas were set aside as evidence that a child was “developing readiness” rather than “demonstrating readiness”?  How many teachers will now use the results of this assessment to take the Kindergarten curriculum and try to push children into very narrow boxes of “correct” and “incorrect” ideas that stifle the kind of play based learning and experimentation that is entirely appropriate and healthy for very young children?

Professor of physics at Loyola University Maryland Joseph Ganem took the results of the Kindergarten assessment to task in the pages of The Baltimore Sun, faulting unrealistic and narrow expectations of the Common Core State Standards for the redefinition of readiness:

However, for skills in what Bloom calls the “cognitive domain,” the school curriculum has become blind not only to the progression of normal child development but also to natural variations in the rate that children develop. It is now expected that pre-school children should be able to grasp sophisticated concepts in mathematics and written language. In addition, it is expected that all children should be at the same cognitive level when they enter kindergarten, and proceed through the entire grade-school curriculum in lock step with one another. People, who think that all children can learn in unison, have obviously never worked with special needs children or the gifted and talented.

I agree with Dr. Ganem, and I will add that Dr. Finn’s attempt to portray these results as widely dire, rather than as indicating a specific population of children in poverty may need additional services, risks a deeper erosion of Kindergarten and early childhood education into narrow and unimaginative academics.  In their 1995 history of education reform, Tinkering Toward Utopia, David Tyack and Larry Cuban noted how the ideal of the “Children’s Garden” was quickly subsumed into preparation for the academic curriculum of grade school:

A much more modest bureaucratic rationale became central: that the kindergarten would prepare five year-olds for the first grade in a scientifically determined developmental way. Some of the features that had made the kindergarten exotic were slowly trimmed away or changed to fit the institutional character of the elementary school. (p. 69)

Dr. Finn proposes that we once again double down on this.  His solution to the problem created by rewriting the meaning of Kindergarten is “intensive, targeted early-childhood education for the kids who need it the most” which almost certainly means further pushing academic skills development to children as young as three. While I am a proponent of universal pre-K, I am mindful that “high quality” programs are far more than academic preparation and will often cloak such preparation in a focus upon learning via play.  In communities with high poverty, a focus on the family and whole child requires the existence of robust community-based social services that blunt the negative impacts of poverty on child development.  But if Dr. Finn believes that a 5 year-old who needs some adult guidance to select the ONE “best idea” in problem solving is not “ready” for Kindergarten, then I have little hope that an accompanying push for more early childhood education will preserve learning by play and attend to what we actually know children need.

For fifty years, we have continuously strangled the idea of free time and free play out of childhood in an academic arms race with our neighbors and other nations.  The consequences have been negative.  While we do have children who have needs that require specific interventions and resources, all of our children need time to grow and explore in their earliest education.

Turning pre-K into the new first grade the way we have already done to Kindergarten is not the answer.

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Filed under child development, Common Core, Funding, politics, teaching, Testing

Chris Christie and the Magical Mystery Standards

Back in February, I noted that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had begun to walk back his support of the Common Core State Standards.  The governor began sounding cautious notes about the implementation of the standards and about how the Obama administration has been involved in the adoption process and used funding as incentives for states to come and stay on board. These statements were directly contrary to the big, wet, sloppy kisses he gave to the standards and to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the KIPP School Summit in 2013:

Whoopsie.  How embarrassing.

Since it is now established fact that all Republican hopefuls for the nomination in 2016 who are not named “Jeb” have to be against the Common Core, Governor Christie assured Republicans in Iowa that his administration was really concerned about the federal role in the standards:

So we’re in the midst of a re-examination of it in New Jersey. I appointed a commission a few months ago to look at it in light of these new developments from the Obama administration and they’re going to come back to me with a report in the next I think six or eight weeks, then we’re going to take some action. It is something I’ve been very concerned about, because in the end education needs to be a local issue.

I suppose that commission got back to Christie as he decided to blow up the education section of most newspapers by announcing that he believed New Jersey should no longer follow the Common Core State Standards.  Speaking at Burlington County College, he declared:

It’s now been five years since Common Core was adopted and the truth is that it’s simply not working….It has brought only confusion and frustration to our parents and has brought distance between our teachers and the communities where they work. Instead of solving problems in our classrooms, it is creating new ones.

The Governor also announced he wants to form a group to develop “new standards right here in New Jersey,” and the news media went moderately crazy over the implications.  Observers closer to home and closer to classrooms were less impressed.  New Jersey parent Sarah Blaine noted that Governor Christie’s announcement took a swipe at the Common Core State Standards, but also pledged to keep New Jersey in the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) whose annual Common Core aligned testing debuted in New Jersey this Spring with widespread complaints and approximately 50,000 opt outs.  Ms. Blaine correctly notes the contradiction that Governor Christie wants to set aside the standards, but will keep the PARCC examinations that are designed to assess student mastery of the standards, and he will keep using the examinations as part of the dreadful AchieveNJ teacher evaluation system, thus keeping both the standards and the aligned assessments central to teachers’ work in New Jersey.  She concludes:

Christie’s announcement changes nothing, and shame on the media for lapping it up so naively. Christie’s so-called rejection of Common Core is simply a sound bite for him to take on the road to Iowa and New Hampshire while our NJ public school kids continue to deal with a language arts curriculum that doesn’t teach them to consider texts and ideas within their broader historical context….However, as long as the Common Core-aligned PARCC test continues to be the barometer to allegedly measure our schools, teachers, and children’s efficacy, Christie’s announcement is worth even less than the paper his speech was written on. If you believe otherwise, then man, I’ve got a bridge to sell you…

Peter Greene bluntly calls Governor Christie’s move an “empty gesture”, and New Jersey
music teacher and Rutgers graduate student Mark Weber, blasted the governor for “screaming hypocrisy” in suddenly claiming to care about what teachers think and about the integrity of local control:

America, take it from those of us living in Jersey: this man doesn’t care one whit about the Common Core, or education standards, or anything having to do with school policies. Chris Christie’s sole interest in education policy is in its worth as a political tool: a tool to diminish the strength of unions, demonize public workers, and shift the focus off of his own many, many failures as governor.
My colleague, Dr. Christopher Tienken of Seton Hall University, was not impressed by how seriously the governor wants new, locally developed, standards given his short time frame, noting, “This is years and years of work that it takes to do this.”  So in all likelihood, New Jersey can expect “New Jersey College and Career Readiness Standards” that are mostly Common Core but with a few definite and indefinite articles swapped around.
I am in complete agreement with Ms. Blaine that Chris Christie’s announcement is pure politics aimed at Republican Party caucus and primary voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.  Republican voters lead the nation in disapproval of the Common Core with perhaps three quarters having a negative opinion of the standards.  While reasons for opposing the standards are diverse, there is a strong impression that the kinds of activist voters likely to participate in the early contests represent that most extreme, and often inaccurate, ideas about what the standards do and do not do.  With Chris Christie’s public move against the standards, Jeb Bush is left alone in the Republican field.
So just to be perfectly clear, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, famed “tough guy” governor who “tells it like it is,” is throwing the Common Core brand off of his campaign bus so he can appeal to this guy:

For all of his declarations that the Common Core standards are not working and that the federal role has been too intrusive, Governor Christie still spoke the language of education reformers in his original remarks:

It’s not enough for most of our students to become proficient – we want all of our students, no matter their economic status or their race or ethnicity, to acquire the skills they need to compete in the 21st century.

And a look at the projected demands of employers in 15 years indicates that we will not be able to meet their needs unless we do a better job educating our children.

By 2030, it is projected that 55 percent of all new and replacement jobs will require people with a post-secondary degree. Yet in New Jersey today, only 42 percent of individuals over 25 have at least an associate degree.

Unless those numbers change – and they must change – that means that 15 years from now, nearly six out of every ten students will lack the basic requirement for a good job.

Where Governor Christie gets his numbers for how many college graduates will be needed by 2030 is unclear because projections vary from under 30% to the mid-40%, but with wages for college graduates basically stuck in place, there is little evidence in the labor market that we are short on graduates.  A more important question is why Governor Christie, like most reformers today, seems to attribute standards with an ability to make classrooms better prepare students for their future in the workforce:

And that’s where we must focus our attention – in every New Jersey classroom and home.  That’s where higher standards can be developed.

We do not want to be the first generation in our Nation’s history to leave our children less equipped and less prepared to build for themselves and their children a nation stronger and more prosperous than the one our parents gave to us.

We owe our kids the educational foundation they need to thrive, not just survive.

In reality, the connection between “quality” standards and classroom achievement looks tenuous at best. For example, Massachusetts is widely regarded as having had excellent standards prior to adopting the Common Core, and it basically was at the top of the country in the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  Texas, meanwhile, was also recognized as having high quality standards prior to Common Core (which the Lone Star State did not adopt), but on the 2013 NAEP, it was only above 7 other states on 8th grade reading.  If quality standards were the elixir for student success, one would expect states with high quality standards to have convergent results from community to community, and yet, there is variability across communities within states as well.  Again, we can look at Massachusetts.   In 2013, Massachusetts urban communities were 32% at or above proficient in 8th grade reading compared to 28% nationally, and suburban communities were 52% at or above proficient compared to 39% nationally.  In 2005, those scores were 25% and 51% respectively.  So – 8 years with Massachusetts’ “high quality” standards, and there was no real movement in suburban achievement and some movement in urban achievement, a mixed bag still demonstrating significant variation in communities across the state even though their standards were the same.

What accounts for this?  The simple fact that standards are not magic and, on their own, do nothing to improve education.  Nor does tying school and teacher survival to standardized assessments aligned with those standards, the other favored tool of reformers.  What improves teaching and learning is often idiosyncratic, messy, and expensive.  However, general principles apply.  Writing in 1990, David Cohen presented the case of “Mrs. Oublier”, a California mathematics teacher who enthusiastically embraced the California math reforms and sincerely believed her practice was embodying them. Cohen, however, found her teaching more frequently belied a pre-reform understanding of the content of mathematics and dressed that understanding up in activities that looked like the reforms.  What held her back?  Her own insufficient education in the new ways of understanding mathematics and teaching mathematics plus the lack of a community consistently engaged in conversation and development on the standards.  Mrs. Oublier had one necessary component to reform and to improve her teaching, her own buy in and enthusiasm, but she lacked two critical other components.

This is something that modern reformers, Governor Christie included, never seem to acknowledge.  Standards, even high quality standards, mated with perverse incentives in the form of high stakes tests, do not reform or improve teaching.  Given the incentives to narrow the curriculum and to teach to the test, they can actually actively make matters worse.  When written clearly and in a developmentally appropriate manner, standards can, ideally, offer teachers end goal benchmarks from which they can “backwards design” instruction to take students from where they are to where they are going (hat tip the recently and too soon departed Grant Wiggins).

But on their own, they do not matter at all.  Teachers need to have genuine buy in, schools needs to be appropriately resourced with materials and meaningful professional development, and teachers need to work within genuinely collaborative learning communities where they and their colleagues are consistently engaged in what it means to teach and to improve teaching.  This cannot be done on the cheap by subjecting teachers and their students to stakes which make a standardized test the most important objective in the system.

And since we can pretty much guarantee that Governor Christie is not going to provide New Jersey schools with genuine respect and new resources, it will not matter if this Common Core backtrack of his results in genuinely new set of standards, a re-adoption of New Jersey’s previous standards, or simply a slap and dash rebranding of Common Core standards with a new name.  The Magical Mystery Standards that improve teaching and learning without a massive, lengthy, and expensive effort do school improvement the right way will never be written.

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Filed under Chris Christie, Common Core, Funding, PARCC, politics

Mr. Petrilli Goes to Albany

Michael Petrilli is the President of the conservative education think tank, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.  As such, he is a major voice in support of much of today’s education reform agenda, notably The Common Core State Standards, opposing teacher unions, and the expansion of charter schools and their networks.  It was surprising to some when he turned up as the invited keynote speaker at the New York State Council of School Superintendents Winter Institute.  Mr. Petrilli was himself aware of the potential controversy in his invitation to speak, and abruptly changed the title of his talk from “How to End the Education Reform Wars” to “How to Survive the Education Reform Wars.”  Diane Ravitch of New York University notes the irony of this reframing due to Mr. Petrilli’s prominent role in fomenting the “education reform wars” in the first place (Think of Dick Cheney giving advice on how to survive political and military turmoil in the Middle East).

Interestingly enough, there are some bright spots in Mr. Petrilli’s talk. The most notable was his declaration of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to boost standardized testing to a full 50% of teacher evaluations as “insane” and citing that even other “reform leaders” are moving to using those measures less.  This is a positive statement from someone in Mr. Petrilli’s position, even if he gives it scant time in his speech, and hopefully it based on the body of research that plainly shows how value added measures of teacher effectiveness are pretty much bollocks.  It is also possible that someone sees the growing backlash against testing and the evaluation systems that encourage teaching to the test as threatening the entire reform agenda. Whatever his reason, it was notable that Mr. Petrilli chose this forum to condemn Governor Cuomo’s teacher evaluation plans. Mr. Petrilli also spent time critiquing some of his fellow reform-minded allies:

But on the other side, some of the reformers have equally extreme views. They say that public schools are failing unless each and everyone one of their graduates are college AND career ready. Each and every one.

Well.

Keep in mind that our highest performing state, Massachusetts, gets only fifty percent of students to that lofty standard. Should we aim to get more students college and career ready? Absolutely. Do I believe that the Common Core standards, if faithfully implemented, will help? Absolutely. Is a school failing if it doesn’t get every single student to that lofty standard? Of course not

I could spend time quibbling with Mr. Petrilli’s definition of “that lofty standard.” Massachusetts was using the MCAS in 2014, so I assume Mr. Petrilli is referring to the Bay State’s top in the nation National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results – which never mention “college and career readiness” because it is the NAEP, not Common Core.  Massachusetts was top of the nation in the 8th grade NAEP for 2013 with 48% of students reaching proficient and advanced in reading and 55% in mathematics — proficient represents solid academic performance and an ability to apply that knowledge in real world, analytic situations, so that is a heck on an accomplishment.  Given that 39.4% of Massachusetts adults over the age of 25 have a BA and that the Bay State economy seems to be picking up real momentum, it seems Massachusetts is poised to be a net exporter of college educated adults. Regardless, Mr. Petrilli is correct to note that reformers clinging to some kind of magical thinking that Common Core and a lofty enough set of expectations will get all kids ready to attend college are not playing in a world that resembles reality, so a sincere thanks for that.

Much of the rest of his address is complete bollocks, however.

Peter Greene does his usual indispensable review of the whole talk here, where he does an especially good job pointing out how Mr. Petrilli sets up some nice fantasy anti-reform activists who want to believe that poor kids cannot learn:

Petrilli uses the new fave talking point for reformsters in which he characterizes the pro-public-education folks (and name checks Diane Ravitch) as those who have given up, think that education is hopeless in the face of poverty, believe that schools cannot do any better. This is the new improved straw man version of dismissing reform critics because they “use poverty as an excuse.” It’s a snappy rhetorical point, but it’s a lie, a deliberate misreading of what folks in the pro-public-ed camp are saying.

It’s a particularly galling point coming from the man who has explained on more than one platform that the proper role of charters is to rescue those students who are deserving, snatching them from the midst of the undeserving mob. It’s galling from charter fans in general, as their whole point is that public schools are hopeless and we should not waste another cent trying to help them do better.

But it’s also insulting to the millions of teachers who are in the classroom day after day, doing the best they can with the resources they have. Hey, teachers– if you’re not succeeding with all of your students, it has nothing to do with obstacles and challenges in your path. You just don’t believe enough.

I can’t improve on that except to affirm how utterly disingenuous it is to take people who are trying to point out that our most most struggling schools typically try to work with populations that have heavy concentrations of poverty and that we have long known the lasting impacts of poverty and to portray that as saying “there is nothing schools can do.” Let’s clear this up:  Mr. Petrilli, when I and other critics of your version of education reform raise the issue of poverty and its demonstrable impact on children and the schools they attend, we do not do so to say that there is nothing that can be done.  We do so because if we as a society are truly concerned about whether a child in poverty can do her very best in school, then perhaps we should be concerned about whether or not she can EAT TODAY.  That means giving her school a lot more to work with in terms of special resources and staff, and that means the rest of society stepping up and taking responsibility for alleviating the deprivations she faces outside of school as well.  That’s why we resist your brand of “reform,” Mr. Petrilli.  It has to do with facts, not ideology.

Mr. Petrilli insists that Common Core is necessary because our standards were a joke before them:

Let me say a few words about this. As many of you know, I’m one of the strongest supporters of the Common Core out there. I’m the conservative they send to red states to testify and urge other Republicans not to drop these standards. And I support these standards because they are pegged to success for our young people—success in college or a good paying job.

That’s important because our earlier standards were set so low that they were sending false signals to kids and to parents that all was well, when it wasn’t. That kids were on track, when they weren’t. You know this. Those old standards and tests were set at such a low level that you could be reading or doing math at the 20th or 30th percentile nationally and be considered proficient.

The assertion that Common Core is “pegged to success” in terms of college and career readiness is one of the articles of faith among reformers, but it is also entirely unproven in practice as of today, and the opaque nature of their development does not provide evidence of how that confidence came about.  The statement also belies an odd faith in the seamlessness from standards to practice to achievement that is not so apparent in the world of education.  Consider Massachusetts again.  The top performing state on the 2013 NAEP was also recognized as having very high quality state standards before adopting the Common Core.  Now consider Texas.  According to Mr. Petrilli’s own organization, the Texas English standards from 2008 are of higher quality that the Common Core standards.  Yet in the 2013 NAEP, Texas, having remained with its own standards, was only above 7 other states in 8th grade reading.  Texas has made some improvement since the adoption of those standards, but it has hardly been dramatic.  Perhaps the teachers of Texas simply don’t believe enough, but my suspicion is that it takes a lot more than “high quality standards” to leverage change.

Mr. Petrilli pivoted his talk with a strangely insulting set of points for his audience:

But let me level with you: We’re frustrated with you too. For sure, we understand that your hands are often tied by union contracts, state regulations, and more. I’ll get to that in a bit. But we do see examples of areas where you are not taking advantage of the authority you DO have to do right by kids. My friend Rick Hess writes about Cage Busting Leaders. Some of those cages are of your own design.

The number-one example, of course, is around teacher evaluations. This whole national push for teacher evaluations came about because research showed that the vast majority of teachers were being given glowing evaluations. And it was clear that in many schools, those evaluations were not being treated seriously. Principals did a couple of fly-by observations a year, and that was it. It wasn’t enough to provide good feedback to teachers, and it sure wasn’t enough to identify teachers who might need to be encouraged to leave the classroom.

It is a fascinating approach to speak to an audience and tell them that they are essentially not doing their jobs, but perhaps the Superintendents were encouraged with the following words of sympathy:

Now, I have more sympathy for you than most reformers. As I see it, you’d have to be crazy as a principal in New York State to give your teachers bad evaluations. Because in New York State, it’s damn near impossible to actually fire a teacher. So if that’s the case, why make an enemy by giving a bad evaluation? It’s better to work the system to send that teacher somewhere else. Until and unless lawmakers here in Albany decide they want to make it significantly easier to fire a teacher, they better get used to seeing reports of lots of glowing evaluations.

Isn’t it nifty how this works out?  Superintendents and principals are not doing their jobs at all, but they get at least a little tea and sympathy because, after all, they may not be lazy — they may just be fearful of the mess that might happen if they did their jobs!

Captain-Picard-Facepalm

Let’s look at the claim that it is “impossible” to fire a teacher.  It is a common claim, one that anti-tenure activists like Campbell Brown like to repeat as if they are reading from the Gospel, but it is really true?  If your standard is the basic at will employment agreement that corporate managers and CEOs enjoy, then I suppose it is true.  Instead of simply calling an employee into the office and telling her to pack up her desk because security is escorting her off the property in ten minutes, school administrators actually have to employ a process and demonstrate cause to remove a tenured teacher.  That may take time and some effort, but it is hardly impossible.  Dr. Alyssa Hadley Dunn of Michigan State University examined Campbell Brown’s favorite claim that it takes over two calendar years to remove a tenured teacher in New York and found it wanting:

This statistic, which Ms. Brown peppers in all of her speeches, appears to be from a research brief of the New York State School Boards Association. This brief was based on the results of a self-report survey to which only 59% of districts responded and in which New York City (the largest district) was not even included. Jessica Glazer has written about whether or not the numbers are even accurate, and Bruce Baker points out, importantly, that quality may vary significantly between districts. Further, since the data was collected, after 2008, the state made efforts to reform tenure laws, changing the minimum years from two to three. Now, according to one report, only a slim majority of teachers receive tenure on the first attempt, and, in 2013, disciplinary cases took, on average, only 177 days statewide.

Considering the importance of teacher tenure for actually effective teachers — such as protecting them so they can speak out on behalf of their students and colleagues as documented in the link — the fact that removal takes effort should not be a point of contention, but Mr. Petrilli, and others like him, suffer from CEO envy in these matters.  CEOs have enormous power within the corporate world, overseen only by a board of directors.  So if you are the CEO of Apple, you can order everyone to focus like a laser on a handheld computer and release it even if the handwriting recognition software is not ready for prime time.  Then if you are the former CEO getting his job back, you can kill the whole project even though it has been greatly improved and will eventually provide you with the technology that will take over the phone market.  You can do all of this because you are the CEO and disruption by your will is in your tool kit.  School leaders work within organizations that are best characterized as “loosely coupled” which means that although organized hierarchically, schools allow significant autonomy among individuals, allow locally derived adaptations for changing conditions, and can have smaller parts of the system break down without damaging the entire system.  Leaders within such systems need different skill sets than corporate leaders, and simply imploring them to more aggressively remove ineffective probationary teachers, as Mr. Petrilli, does is insufficient to the task of being a real instructional leader within a school system, a role that requires significant rethinking of the role of principal from administrator to staff developer with resources coordinated and time allotted across the entire system.  “Fire them while they are young” just doesn’t cut it.

But is Mr. Petrilli’s contention even true?  Is it true that principals and superintendents don’t give tough evaluations because they know they cannot remove an ineffective teachers?  There’s a possible explanation that is left entirely unexplored in his talk: namely, the scoring bands for teacher evaluation in New York were set so that teachers who did not score as ineffective in any category could still be labeled as ineffective.  Principal Carol Burris explains that here as well as the different system that was imposed upon New York City by then Commissioner John King.  In the 2011-2013 scoring bands, it was possible for a teacher to get a low “developing” mark from the state test and the locally selected test measure, get 58 out of 60 points on the “other measures” and be labeled “ineffective.”  Not one score band in the ineffective range, but ineffective regardless.

So is it possible that principals and superintendents have not been vigorous enough in teacher evaluations because they dread the work of trying to remove an ineffective teacher as Mr. Petrilli contends?  Possibly – if you have a low opinion of their work ethic and professional pride.  It is equally possible that principals and superintendents know that the score bands are set up in a way that teachers can be found ineffective without having a single measure in a range that is labeled ineffective.  Cognizance of that inherent unfairness could easily skew observation scores upwards, especially for school leaders who have multiple and diverse other tasks to attend to.

Mr Petrilli’s biggest whopper comes near the end when he laments the assumed sea of red tape that holds back schools and claims the success of charter schools is attributable to their freedom from such requirements.  Then he tells superintendents to demand the same “freedom”:

The notion with charter schools is that the only way to cut this Gordian Knot is to start fresh, to opt out of the regulatory framework, and the union contract framework, entirely. And create a whole new paradigm.

And if you are frustrated by comparisons between your schools—your over regulated, hyper unionized schools,and the autonomous charter sector—you are right to be. But here’s my advice: Don’t fight em, join em. Ask for similar freedoms. Ask for similar autonomies. And if that fails, use chartering to advance your own goals. Stop fighting with one hand tied behind your back—tied up with red tape. Cut the ties. Come out swinging.

Here is CEO envy all over again, and it is wrong because someone’s (presumably, Petrilli’s) “red tape” is another person’s “Free And Appropriate Public Education” — just one of the many regulations that the “no excuses” brands of charter schools routinely opt themselves out of in pursuit of higher test scores.  Here we have Michael Petrilli, who has never been a teacher, a school administrator, or a qualified researcher, advising the superintendents of New York to push to free themselves from regulatory requirements that were put in place to protect vulnerable children in the first place.  And he tells them to seek this “freedom” to emulate a sector that he has openly and repeatedly said is right to restrict itself to “the strivers” and to rid itself of students who do not measure up.  We know what this looks like in practice — a Kindergarten child with manageable attention deficit throwing up in the morning because he is afraid he will be “fired” from school. 

Even without the emotional and ethical argument, we also know that charters as they are managed now in many urban areas make the local school system worse off for everyone else.  After the charter schools compete for space and other resources and after they effectively skim off the easiest to educate children and push out the ones who are not, you have district schools that have no say in how charters are managed and are left with demographics that are more disadvantaged, more disabled, and less able to speak English, all of whom need many more services from diminished remaining resources.

For Mr. Petrilli to come out and exhort his audience to demand allowance to act similarly and then to advocate, as he did on Twitter, that district public schools should be allowed to push out students as they see fit, is asking for a school system that is pathologically unwilling to work with anyone it doesn’t want to:

It would one thing for charter advocates like Mr. Petrilli to say the cream skimming is okay if he were to similarly advocate that the district public schools, working with the much higher needs students, had resources poured into them so they could accomplish the mission of educating the most needy.  Smaller class sizes, co-teaching, increased numbers of paraprofessionals, increased certified special education teachers, language programs, speech and physical therapy, social workers, health and nutrition programs, renovated facilities — tellingly, none of this made the list of things Mr. Petrilli told superintendents should go to bat for.

Because something else was missing from the speech — money.  Michael Petrilli was talking to a gathering of New York superintendents, a group of school system administrators who have seen their budgets plummet due to a state property tax cap and budget games in Albany that have cost the AVERAGE school district millions of dollars a year in state aid.  I do not know if the Superintendent of Hempstead was in the audience, but if she was, I do wonder if she feels like she needs to be a “cage busting” leader more than she needs Albany to not short her school district MORE THAN $6400 PER CHILD THIS YEAR.  It is something of a sick joke to talk to a group of district leaders about how to “survive the education reform wars” and offer no insight into how to fight to keep their school aid from being raided year after tedious year.  It is not remotely funny to advocate that they push for policies that, objectively, would require huge increases in local and state spending to make happen in a thoughtful and remotely helpful way and to still remain entirely mum about money.

I am sure Mr. Petrilli got polite applause. 

I would not be surprised if he got a significant number of eye rolls.