Tag Archives: Common Core

Have We Wasted Over a Decade?

A dominant narrative of the past decade and a half of education reform has been to highlight alleged persistent failures of our education system.  While this tale began long ago with the Reagan Administration report A Nation at Risk, it has been put into overdrive in the era of test based accountability that began with the No Child Left Behind Act.  That series of amendments to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act mandated annual standardized testing of all students in grades 3-8 and once in high school, set a target for 100% proficiency for all students in English and mathematics, and imposed consequences for schools and districts that either failed to reach proficiency targets or failed to test all students.  Under the Obama administration, the federal Department of Education has freed states from the most stringent requirements to meet those targets, but in return, states had to commit themselves to specific reforms such as the adoption of common standards, the use of standardized test data in the evaluation of teachers, and the expansion of charter schools.  All of these reforms are predicated on the constantly repeated belief that our citizens at all levels are falling behind international competitors, that our future workforce lacks the skills they will need in the 21st century, and that we have paid insufficient attention to the uneven distribution of equal opportunity in our nation.

But what if we’ve gotten the entire thing wrong the whole time?

Or, perhaps to be more accurate, what if the entire picture of American public education is simply far, far more complicated that the simplistic, even opportunistic, narrative of failure we’ve been hearing since 1983?  Two reports, noted in January of this year by Kay McSpadden of the Charlotte Observer, put the presumption of failure into question.   The first report was released by the National Center for Educational Statistics at the USDOE and was about the results of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).  According to the PIRL Study, the United States does very well compared to other nations and international cities, ranking below 4 other territories (Hong Kong, Russian Federation, Finland, Singapore) and not being significantly different than 7 others (Northern Ireland-GBR, Denmark, Croatia, Chinese Taipei-CHN, Ireland, England-GBR).  While PIRLS does not include all of the nations we typically see cited as outperforming the United States, the study evaluates whether or not students have learned the literacy skills likely to be taught in school, and in this category, students in the USA are doing quite well, with 56% of students achieving the “high” benchmark or greater.  In fact, when poverty characteristics are taken into account, the accomplishment of US students and schools is even more impressive.  Students in schools with between 10-25% of students eligible for free or reduced lunch scored 584, which is higher than the national average for top performing Singapore, a city state where roughly 1 in 10 households earns an income below the average monthly expenditure on basic needs and whose actual poverty rate may be higher.  At the same time, United States students whose schools have 75% or more students qualifying for free or reduced lunch, scored 520, roughly the same as African American students, and “tied” with France, 18 places behind the U.S. average.

The PIRLS data tells us something that we’ve known for some time.  United States testing data, much like United States educational funding, is tightly coupled with the poverty characteristics of the community tested.  Dr. Stephen Krashen, Professor Emeritus at University of Southern California, concluded that the unspectacular scores on U.S. students on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) are largely attributable to our 21% child poverty rate and the impact that has on communities and individual children.  PIRLS results tell a similar story, and the persistent connection between race and poverty in America similarly explains the score gap between African American students and other ethnic groups.

The second report cited by Ms. McSpadden was released by the Horace Mann League with the National Superintendent’s Roundtable, and is titled The Iceberg Effect, An International Look at Often Overlooked Education IndicatorsThe report compared the United States, Canada, China, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom on indicators of economic equity, social stress, support for young families, support for schools, student outcomes, and system outcomes.  Perhaps most interesting is that the United States ranked next to last or last on economic equity, social stress, and support for young families, ranked fourth in support for schools and fifth in student outcomes, but then ranked first in system outcomes.  In support for schools, the United States was well ranked in expenditures and class sizes, but U.S. teachers enjoy far less support than their international peers, clocking over 1000 hours in the classroom compared to the Finland and G7 average of 664 hours.  Student outcomes for the United States are very high in the fourth grade assessments but are brought down overall by high school assessments, and the report notes that gaps by SES exist in all countries.  Interestingly, in system outcomes, the U.S. leads the studied nations in the number of years of schooling completed, the portion of the population with high school diplomas and BA degrees, and has the largest proportion of high performing science students.

These results are actually quite astonishing when you consider the extremely low performance for the United States in indicators of economic stability and social support.  We ranked the just above China in terms of economic inequality, and our communities are subject to shockingly high levels of social stress in the form of violence and premature death from violence and drug use, which studies show have long lasting impact on health and brain development.  These indicators are not even offset in the U.S. by generous expenditures in support of families and children or access to preschool as we ranked only above China and below the G-7 and Finland.

One has to wonder if the individual student results would be closer to matching the U.S. system results if we had spent the past 13 years focusing on the first five indicators instead of upon test based accountability.

This is no idle speculation because since NCLB, our school system has been subjected largely to a federally imposed experiment in warped behavioral economics where first school districts and then individual teachers were incentivized by high stakes attached to standardized tests to improve themselves or be targeted, by those same test scores, for dire consequences.  However, in the absence of doing much of anything else to support teachers, schools, families, or communities, the tests have ceased to be a way to monitor performance and have become an object in and of themselves.  With the dominant theme of education reform being “Test – Label – Punish” we have crafted a “reform” environment that expects targets and incentives to pressure schools and teachers to close long known achievement gaps all by themselves with literally no other aspect of our political and economic infrastructure doing a thing — except close those schools and turn them over to privately run charter school operators who like to boast about their nearly miraculous test scores, but whose practices are entirely unlike what you would expect of a public education system that is designed to serve all students.

This is not a school accountability and improvement agenda so much as it is a system operating on the kind of incentive structures endemic at Enron before its collapse.  Little wonder, therefore, that Kevin G. Welner and William J. Mathis of University of Colorado at Boulder 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.

This call is incredibly important in no small part because education “reformers” are correct in one critical observation about American education even if their solutions are poorly constructed.  Educational opportunity is not evenly distributed in America in no small part because the known impacts of poverty on children tend to concentrated in specific zip codes due to rising levels of income segregation.  The upshot of this is that a school which serves a discernible number of children in poverty will tend to serve a large percentage of children in poverty while schools with students from economic advantage will have almost none.  We do not need standardized test based accountability to tell us that outcomes are different in Mt. Vernon than in Scarsdale, but we should demand action.

If not testing, labeling, and punishing, then what?  First, we have to recognize that community conditions directly impact schools, and if we expect schools to provide access to opportunities for their students, then we, as a society, need to accept responsibility for the lack of opportunities in many of our communities. 51% of today’s school children qualify for free or reduced lunch, meaning their families subsist  185% of the Federal Poverty Level or less, so I take it as a given that economic opportunities are not as abundant as they ought to be.

Second, we should recognize the support and capacity building we have completely failed to provide for schools by placing our focus on testing as more than system monitoring.  What could have been done differently if we had taken a different focus?

  • What if we had finally fulfilled federal promises to fund the Individuals With Disabilities in Education Act at 40% of average cost which has never been done?
  • What if we had taken seriously the 25% of schools with more than half of students eligible for free or reduced lunch that have physical facilities rated “fair” or “poor” and pledged to invest in school capital improvement needs across the nation estimated at $197 billion?
  • What if we had spent ten years expanding early childhood services and support for families?
  • What if we had pledged to get full wrap around services into all Title 1 schools?
  • What if we had recognized that working with high concentrations of high risk students requires a genuine commitment to resources and capacity building which has been nearly completely absent in the age of test based accountability?

By most measures, the past 14 years have been a completely wasted opportunity (except for the private charter school advocates who have been monetizing their school model and the corporations that have profited from testing).  It is time to stop.  It is time to make a commitment to education that is equal to the soaring rhetoric reformers have lavished upon testing.

Morpheus

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Filed under charter schools, Common Core, Data, Funding, NCLB, Pearson, politics, Social Justice, Testing

Was Arne Duncan Ever a Child?

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

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

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

Where to start?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These-arent-the-droids

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Opt Out: Won’t Somebody PLEASE Think of the Property Values??

USA Today ran a story last week from the Journal News of Westchester County about the growing Opt Out movement.  The article was fairly mild in tone, cited numbers about the unprecedented size of the current testing boycott, and gave time to proponents of the testing mandates and the information generated by the tests.  One quote, however, really stood out from out the rest.  It was from Nicole Brisbane, the New York state director for “Democrats for Education Reform,” who said:

“Schools are one of the biggest differentiators of value in the suburbs. How valuable will a house be in Scarsdale when it isn’t clear that Scarsdale schools are doing any better than the rest of Westchester or even the state? Opting out of tests only robs parents of that crucial data. “

Wow.

For those who are not in the know, DFER is an organization that is not actually made up of grassroots Democrats working for education reform so much as it is a front group for very large, mainly conservative, donors to influence Democratic politicians to support what passes for education “reform” these days.  While DFER has certainly influenced a number of Democratic politicians by funneling campaign contributions made possible by DFER’s funding sources (The Walton Family Foundation, Rupert Murdoch, Rex Sinquefield, etc), it’s stated purpose is to change the positions of Democrats on questions like charter schools and tying teacher evaluations to test scores to those more likely found in the Republican Party.

Whitney Tilson, the billionaire hedge fund manager at the heart of DFER, was actually quite upfront about this:

“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…”

So DFER is not REALLY “Democrats for Education Reform” so much as it is “Billionaires For Education Reform Bribing Democrats to Wreck Public Education,” but BFERBDWPE is hard to make look snappy on a flyer.  That is, however, exactly how NY Governor Andrew Cuomo got to be the poster child for destroying public schools from the Democratic Party side of things.

Peter Greene of the Curmudgucation blog was especially insightful in his take on Ms. Brisbane’s bizarre set of priorities:

But at least we have a great new reason that all students need to take those tests– without them, the Betters would have one less badge of their Betterness. Testing will help us put Those People in their place. Don’t let your class down! Don’t let the property values drop! Get in there and take a test for the team.

Yup — the NY State Director for the hedge funded political bribery outfit PAC most devoted to high stakes testing essentially told parents in the suburbs to have their children lie back, close their eyes, and think of Scarsdale.  Especially their property values.

While that “reasoning,” and I use the term loosely, is bizarre enough, I’d like to take it just a little bit further.  Ms. Brisbane is, of course, correct that the value of property in a community has links to the perceived quality of the schools in that community.  Towns with school systems that have reputations for excellence and with high percentages of students moving on to desirable colleges do see increases in assessed property values.  Of course, this phenomenon predates not only the Common Aligned state examinations, it predates the entire period of test based accountability introduced with No Child Left Behind.  One has to wonder how the parents of Scarsdale could have ever known anything about their community’s schools before they got the state issued two page report that includes no item analysis whatsoever?

It is interesting that Ms. Brisbane chose Scarsdale as her example, given its long standing reputation as one of the wealthiest communities in the country.  However, you do not have to take my word for that.  The United States Census Bureau curates census data by community, so we can look directly at some key indicators for Scarsdale.  The Village of Scarsdale is 82.7% white compared with NY state which is 65.7% white, and it is 13% Asian with African American and Hispanic populations of 1.5% and 3.9% respectively.  Scarsdale’s population of people speaking a language other than English at home is actually closer to the state average than it’s racial make up with 21.5% of the population.

A staggering 85.7% of the population over 25 has at least a bachelors degree compared with a state average of 33.2%.  Per capita income is $109,044 and household income is $233,311 compared to the state averages of $32,382 and $58,003 respectively.  In NY state, the median value of a home is $288,200, and while the table does not have a specific median value in Scarsdale, the footnote says that it is over $1 million.  Scarsdale’s population living below the poverty level is 1.7% compared to a state average of 15.3%.

A family considering sending its children to Scarsdale schools will likely know something about the village’s school system just because they can afford to live there in the first place. I should also be clear:  I do not believe that someone living in Scarsdale is living there so that he does not have to live with people who are poor or minority.  However, the fact that he can afford to live there means that he does not live with very many people who are poor or minority by default.

Ms. Brisbane, however, wanted to know how parents in Scarsdale will COMPARE themselves to other communities, even in Westchester county.  Fair enough.  Westchester has had historic problems with integrating lower income and minority families within the county, so let’s look at the nearby city of Mt. Vernon next.  Mt. Vernon is 63.4% African American and 14.3% Hispanic.  23.1% of people over the age of 5 speak a language other than English at home, and the percentage of people over 25 years of age with a bachelor’s degree is below the state average at 26.4%.  Per capita income is $27,454 and household income is $49,328. While the median home price is $392,300, only 37.7% of the population are home owners. 16% of the population lives below the poverty line.

Demographic information from the New York State Education Department shows some stark contrasts that match or actually amplify the census data.  Scarsdale High School is 89% white or Asian while only 1% of the school is of Limited English Proficiency and there are so few economically disadvantaged students that the data is suppressed to prevent them (him? her?) from being personally identified.  Mt. Vernon High School is 79% African American and 17% Hispanic, higher than the averages for the city overall.  While only 4% of the school is LEP, 65% of the students in the school are economically disadvantaged, meaning their family qualifies for public assistance programs such as free and reduced price lunch. A family of four qualifies for reduced price lunch at 185% of the federal poverty level or $44,863.

The same NYSED web site reports school data on student graduation rates and on the Regents exam.  (Yes, Ms. Brisbane, I am relying on a test-based comparison, using a long established EXIT examination used in the state of New York that predates the additional annual testing required by NCLB.  I will admit that your hypothetical home owner or potential buyer would have some interest in how certain school performance markers compare in different communities — I am also pointing out that these markers already exist).  In Scarsdale, graduation rates are essentially 100%, and the percentage of students who earned 75 or higher on the English Regents exam and scored 80 or higher on a math Regents examination was 81% in 2014; the state average was 38%.  In Mt. Vernon, the 2014 graduation rate was 47%, down from 54% the prior year.  In 2014, only 3% of the graduating cohort reached the English and math scores of 75 and 80 or higher, down from 8% the prior year.  Interestingly, Scarsdale’s very small African American and Hispanic populations do not score as high as their white and Asian classmates on the Regents examination with only 60% of African American and 65% of Hispanic students reaching the “aspirational” levels.

It is worth noting that I began by looking at the race and income characteristics of these communities, but since the negative impacts of poverty on educational outcomes is well known, the fact that Mt. Vernon has a school population that is much poorer than Scarsdale’s means the diminished graduation outcomes are not unexpected.  In fact, it mirrors a national phenomenon that finds when there are greater concentrations of students in poverty, testable outcomes are much lower than in communities with few students in poverty.

poverty stupid

This is where education reform advocates like to accuse their critics of fatalism and saying that there is “nothing we can do” to get better educational outcomes for children in impoverished communities.  I will agree with the premise that geographic location and income level should not be seen as determinative, and the comparison between Scarsdale and Mt. Vernon should not be taken to mean the graduation rates and diminished achievement data in Mt. Vernon should be acceptable.  However, the point of this blog is to demonstrate that there is quite a lot of data available with which one can compare Scarsdale and another community in Westchester County, and that such data has been available for many years before the Common Core aligned examinations came along.  There is, in fact, very little that these tests will tell us in community by community comparison that we do not already know.

There is something that we do know, however, and it is something that Governor Cuomo continues to do far too little to address.  Namely, the Mt. Vernon school district was shorted almost $2300 per student in state foundational school aid in the 2014-2015 school year.  So while it is all nice and well that Ms. Brisbane and her bosses at BFERBDWPE want to be able to tell a tale of communities whose homes are made more valuable by student test scores, there is another tale they fail to acknowledge: that of schools populated with students in poverty whose budgets have been repeatedly starved.

Meanwhile, Ms. Brisbane’s Scarsdale parents can take comfort in the knowledge that six residents in the Class of 2013 alone got into Harvard University.  They could have found that out without the Common Core tests too.

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Filed under Common Core, Corruption, DFER, Funding, Social Justice, Testing

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.