Tag Archives: Corruption

Dear Hillary – 2015 Version

Dear Secretary Clinton:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately, they don’t work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When “Evaluation” Means “Ruin Teaching”

Observers of the budget negotiation process in Albany, N.Y. had some reasons to be hopeful over the past week.  Various reports indicated that the new Assembly Speaker, Assemblyman Carl Heastie of the Bronx, was holding firm against various education proposals from Governor Andrew Cuomo.  Backed by polling showing the public in New York dead set against the Governor’s proposals by wide margins, it looked like much of the education agenda laid out in the January budget address was at risk.  And early reports from Sunday suggested that the Assembly representatives secured significant increases in education aid and managed to trim a number of the worst proposals from the budget framework.  An aid increase between $1.4-$1.6 billion dollars is in the agreement, and Governor Cuomo’s plans to lift the charter school cap and provide a new tax credit for donations to private schools are both absent from the framework.

Teacher evaluations and tenure, however, remained problematic.  The evaluation agreement still relies upon standardized testing, outside evaluations, and principal evaluations, but at unspecified weightings.  In a tenure process extended to four years, new teachers would have to have three years rated as “effective” to earn tenure, and teachers earning “ineffective” in consecutive years would face an expedited removal process of 90 days.  Reports of these proposals reaching the budget framework obviously concerned those hoping for relief from test based accountability and an evaluation process that recognized the mounting evidence against value-added models of teacher effectiveness based on standardized tests.

Oh, what a difference 12 hours has made.

Not only are the evaluation proposals worse than originally feared, but also the desperately needed increase in school aid is contingent upon cities and towns adopting the evaluation framework and having it approved by Albany before November.  According to the Capital New York report, Deputy Commissioner Ken Wagner explained the following details of the agreed upon evaluation framework in the budget negotiation:

  • Increase in state aid will not happen if a district fails to submit a new evaluation and have it approved by November 15th.
  • Tenure will be extended to a four year process, and a probationary teacher must have an “effective” or better rating for three of those four years.  A rating of “ineffective” in the fourth year will deny tenure.
  • The state Education Department will be tasked with creating a “matrix” based upon test scores, outside evaluators, and principal evaluations; districts may request an additional state examination to be developed by the NYSED, but it is unclear how many districts would want more testing in the current environment.

These conditions were on top of earlier reports that stated that the evaluation system would be designed so that a teacher who is found “ineffective” based on the testing portion of the matrix will not be able to be rated higher than “developing” overall regardless of the observation scores.  In essence, the state Education Department has until June to craft a teacher evaluation system where test scores will govern whether or not a teacher can be rated “effective,” and districts have until November to submit their plans to implement such a system or they will receive none of the budgeted aid increase.

This is not a plan to strengthen teaching.  This is a plan to use test scores to severely curtail the teaching profession in the state of New York.

The reasons not to use value-added models for teacher evaluation are numerous, but the most important ones are:

  1. Teacher input on the differences among student test scores is too low and the models used to locate that input are not reliable enough to be used to evaluate individual teachers.  This is the judgement of the American Statistical Association whose statement on using value-added models makes it clear the models have very large standard errors that make ranking teachers by them unstable.
  2. The instability of VAMs is considerable, and teachers who are deemed “irreplaceable” because of a VAM ranking in one year can be ranked very differently in subsequent years.
  3. Even teachers who are known to be excellent and teach advanced students can be found “ineffective” by VAM ranking.  Working in an excellent school with highly privileged students who score extremely well on tests is not a guarantee of an effective VAM ranking.
  4. Teachers who score well on VAM ranking do not necessarily score well when their students are tested on measures of critical thinking, suggesting that VAMs do a poor job of finding out which teachers are actually promoting meaningful learning with their students.

What possible outcome will be the result of the teacher evaluation proposals in Albany?  For starters, it will not only be much more difficult to obtain tenure, it may become impossible without converting significant portions of the curriculum into test preparation.  If teachers are held to a top ranking of “developing” if the test based portion of the evaluation is “ineffective” then it is distressingly possible that many new teachers will not be able to reach “effective” or better for three out of four years, and it will be through no fault of their own given the problems with VAM derived rankings.  Just as the No Child Left Behind act resulted in a narrowed curriculum due to pressure from high stakes testing, New York is poised to exacerbate that problem, and parents can expect their children to spend fewer hours with social studies, science, art, music, health, and physical education.  The final results of the budget negotiation may not be as bad as Governor Cuomo initially proposed, but there is still a hefty dose of poison in it that threatens to increase the replacement of our schools’ curricula with testing while gaining no actual improvement in the teacher workforce.

Noticeably absent from anyone in Albany who professes to care about the quality of teachers in the Empire State?  Support.  Meaningful professional development and education.  Mentoring and induction proposals.  While there is no “one size fits all” in helping teachers grow in their jobs, there are general principles that matter.  The Albany budget negotiations offer no support for schools to improve their working conditions and general environment, factors that research shows have impact on both teacher satisfaction and student learning independent of demographics of the school.  Supporting principals in being genuine instructional leaders within their schools and providing teachers with real opportunities to collaborate and to lead across experience levels would do far more to substantively improve student achievement than hanging yet one more Sword of Damocles over teachers’ heads.  Doing so would require an actual investment of funds and resources not tied to blackmail demands.

That might be a novel approach for Albany these days, but it is the only one that is right.

New York Assembly members can be found and contacted from this page.  Members of the Senate can be found here.  The New York State Allies for Public Education has a list of the important leaders’ offices here.  Every phone call, email, and Tweet makes a statement.

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Filed under Corruption, Funding, NCLB, New York Board of Regents, politics, teacher learning, teaching, Testing

Dear NYS Assembly Members: Did We Stutter?

Allies of public education in New York have had some hope that Assembly Democrats were getting the message and were preparing to truly challenge Governor Andrew Cuomo’s appalling education agenda.  Speaker Carl Heastie and his colleagues released a proposal with $830 million more in school aid than the governor’s and with none of the strings attached to the aid that made the governor’s proposals so potentially damaging.  Gone were changes to teacher tenure and dismissal, increases in the state charter school cap, and increased authority for Albany to take over schools, all proposals the governor demands in return for raising school aid by $1 billion.  While the Assembly number is still far short of what is required to fully fund the Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement that Albany has largely ignored since 2007, it was a push in the right direction.  Senate Democrats are reportedly casting their futures away from Governor Cuomo, and Assembly Democrats and Republicans are calling foul on the governor’s stated intention to shunt aside the Assembly if they do not give him exactly what he wants.  Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, having indicted former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, is still sniffing around Albany which cannot be comfortable for a governor who is the top beneficiary of hedge fund money in the state and who assembled half of his campaign cash from fewer that 350 donors.

Even better than the brewing dissatisfaction with Governor Cuomo among law makers, even law makers of his own party, is the evidence that voters are increasingly stacking up against the Governor’s education proposals.   A Quinnipiac University poll released last week showed that Governor Cuomo’s approval rating has fallen 8 points since December, leaving him with a 50% job approval rating.  More telling, however, was that the poll revealed only 28% of respondents approved of the governor’s education plans, and that 55% said they trusted the state teachers union more when it came to improving education in the Empire State.  71% disagreed with tying teacher compensation to student test scores, and 65% said teacher tenure should not be tied to standardized test scores.  Governor Cuomo’s education proposals are so unpopular that his entire approval rating is being dragged down with voter dissatisfaction with those ideas.

Speaker Carl Heastie entered the infamous “three men in a room” negotiations where Albany’s power brokers convene to discuss what will actually be brought for a vote to the Assembly and Senate.  Governor Cuomo was there, as was Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos whose Republican conference won an outright majority in the 2014 election.  In a break with protocol, Senator Jeffrey Klein, whose 5 person independent Democratic conference previously gave Senator Skelos control of the Senate, was involved in the negotiations, infuriating Senate Minority Leader, Democrat Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who contends that if Senator Klein can be there representing 5 members, she should be there to represent 25. With an increasingly defiant membership and with clear evidence of popular agitation against the governor’s education proposals, observers wanted Speaker Heastie to face down Governor Cuomo.  Instead, sources with the Alliance for Quality Education noted that a hastily made statement on Wednesday spoke about a $1.4 billion “compromise” school aid increase, $400 million less than the Assembly’s proposal.

One cannot help but wonder if Governor Cuomo has the firstborn children of all Assembly members locked up in Azkaban or something like that.

With all due respect (and no small portion of dismay), I must exhort Speaker Heastie and his conference to realize that this is not a time for compromise with Governor Cuomo.  There is no “reasonable middle ground” with proposals that are so pernicious to the quality of education in the state.  Accepting a half dose of poison is not a virtue.  It is worthwhile to note the affronts to our public schools from the governor that demand remedy:

Our schools are starved of monetary resources.  Governor Cuomo likes to say that money isn’t an issue because New York spends a lot, but his statement fails to acknowledge a simple truth that education costs what it costs and when you have high concentrations of poverty and other situations that complicate teaching and learning, you will need to spend more even if measurable results are slow to manifest.  Worse, however, is the fact that the governor’s claim is a blatant dodge of the fact that nobody in Albany has ever tried to actually fund the Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement that would have increased Albany’s school aid by $7 billion.  Governor Cuomo’s proposal to increase aid by $1.1 billion is barely 20% of the amount needed to fully fund the CFE settlement, and his promise of a mere $380 million if he does not get his full set of proposed education changes is 7% of what is needed.  In addition to simply ignoring the state’s commitments to increase education aid, the governor and legislators have maintained the Gap Elimination Adjustment that Albany uses to take back budgeted school aid in the event of a shortfall, resulting in billions of dollars more in lost school aid cross the state with cuts in personnel and services in most districts.  In his first year in office, Governor Cuomo pushed for and got a property tax cap, which effectively limits how cities and towns might make up for lost state aid due to the GEA and unfunded CFE obligations.

The governor insists that money is not an issue even as he has strangled our schools at every opportunity.  The Assembly’s proposed increase is a mere down payment on correcting this.

The proposed teacher evaluations have no basis in research and will harm education statewide.  With the exception of a few die hard fans who think if they just wish hard enough, value-added modeling of teacher effectiveness will start to work, there is precious little research saying you can reliably and fairly use statistical modeling based on test scores to evaluate teachers.  Worse, we know that the high stakes testing environment instituted under the No Child Left Behind act has narrowed the curriculum and increased test preparation and given us practically nothing worthwhile in return.  No evidence based or frankly rational person would propose at this point to increase the role of standardized testing in our accountability systems for schools and teachers.

So, naturally, Governor Cuomo wants to increase test scores to a full 50% of teacher evaluations.  He wants a further 35% to be in the hands of “outside evaluators,” leaving a mere 15% for school principals.  The benefits of this approach will be non-existent while the damage is already entirely predictable.  The Assembly cannot compromise on this.

Raising the charter school cap will hurt our public schools.  The original idea behind charter schools was to create small, local, experiments in education that would work with students not well served in their schools and feed lessons learned back into the fully public system to see if they could be scaled.  That quickly morphed into the idea of charters as a form of competition seeking to draw both students and resources out of neighborhood schools, and today, the most prominent charters on the landscape are brands unto themselves.  Those charters are politically and financially connected; in New York their financiers have donated handsomely to the governor who has pretty much adopted their agenda lock, stock, and barrel.  More troubling, however, is the fact that the data shows the barely regulated charter school sector not only fails to feed scalable ideas to local schools, but also it acts parasitically.  In New York, charter schools cream students via lottery processes that put unnecessary barriers between the most disadvantaged students and entry.  Once accepted, parents have to agree to levels of involvement that are pose significant difficulties for families with low wage earning adults, and  behavioral expectations as low as Kindergarten result in students who do not immediately conform being pushed out.

The upshot?  No excuses charter school chains have student populations that are less poor, have many fewer students who are limited English proficient, and have fewer students with disabilities and almost no students with difficult to accommodate disabilities.  Once resource competition is factored in, the conclusion is inescapable:  large numbers of charter schools leave fully public schools with student populations that have much greater needs and many fewer resources available to meet those needs.

If the Assembly “compromises” on the charter school cap, it will guarantee further harm to all students.

Tax giveaways for private and parochial school donations while underfunding state school aid is an unacceptable double blow.  The governor’s proposed “tax credit” for education donations allows wealthy donors to take additional tax breaks on donations to private and parochial schools, and it has been criticized as a “back door voucher” plan that would divert money that might otherwise end up in public schools.  Governor Cuomo has also made the passage of the DREAM Act contingent upon passing the tax credit.  It is a sad state of affairs when a governor who has no intention of fully funding public schools would insist upon additional tax breaks for the extremely wealthy that favor private and parochial schools and would hold up the status of children of undocumented immigrants until those tax breaks are in place.  Unfortunately, at least one former opponent of the tax credits has flipped his position, and it is unclear what will come of these negotiations.

Offering the wealthy additional tax breaks to direct donations into private hands while our public schools remain underfunded by $5.6 billion a year should not even be on the table.

This budget process in Albany is no time for a falsely constructed “middle ground” to prevail in the name of “reasonableness.”  The Assembly’s budget proposal is simply a good down payment on the state’s legal obligations to fund public education at levels sufficient to the task.  Removing Governor Cuomo’s damaging reforms on teacher evaluation and dismissal, state take over of schools, charter schools, and tax giveaways to the wealthy is the only reasonable course of action.  There is no “reasonable compromise” between entirely pernicious and minimally acceptable.  Instead of compromising with the governor, Speaker Heastie should demand:

  • A timetable for full funding of the Campaign For Fiscal Equity settlement, adjusted for inflation, and with additional funds to make up for revenue lost because of the GEA and property tax caps.
  • Full repudiation of the GEA in all future school aid budgets.
  • No increases in the charter school cap unless comprehensive eforms place them on an equal playing field with fully public schools, disallow the practices that result in their very disparate student demographics, and subject them to full transparency in their finances and daily operations, especially their disciplinary practices.
  • No consideration of tax breaks for the wealthy to fund private and parochial schools while our public schools remain financially starved by the school aid budget, the gap elimination adjustment, and the property tax cap.

The Assembly needs to remember that Governor Cuomo enjoys a measly 28% approval of his education agenda.  55% of New Yorkers believe that NYSUT would do a better job of improving our schools.  This is a time to hold firm.

Unless, of course, Governor Cuomo really does have your children in Azkaban.  Trust me; we’d like to know.

Democrats, did He Who Must Not Be Named lock your children up here?

Democrats, did He Who Must Not Be Named lock your children up here?

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Filed under charter schools, Corruption, Funding, Social Justice, Testing, VAMs

Does Andrew Cuomo REALLY Want Parents to Understand What is Happening With Education?

Last week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo sat down with the editorial board of the New York Daily News to discuss his reasons for upping the ante in his campaign to decrease teachers’ workplace protections and to make 85% of teacher evaluations depend upon standardized exams and observers outside of school.  During his meeting, he characterized the NYSUT, which withheld its endorsement during his reelection campaign, as an “industry” more interested in protecting its members than with the children that those members teach, and he bragged about berating a union representative who claimed to represent students.  The Governor also claimed that the only reason there is not more agitation for the kind of reforms that he is pursuing is because parents do not really know what is going on in their schools:

“If (the public) understood what was happening with education to their children, there would be an outrage in this city,” Cuomo said. “I’m telling you, they would take City Hall down brick by brick.

“It’s only because it’s complicated that people don’t get it.”

That’s quite a pronouncement from the Governor when citywide surveys show that well over 90% of public school parents in NYC are satisfied with the instructional environment in their children’s schools, agree that their schools keep them informed of their children’s progress, and would recommend their school to other parents.  That same survey showed that parents’ top concern by far was classroom sizes — “firing a hell of a lot more teachers” did not break into the top ten.

But, you know, Governor Cuomo knows “what is happening with education to their children” far better than the parents.

Of course, it is possible that the most vulnerable parents and student populations are not represented in the survey data which is a legitimate concern, and there is certainly no doubt that there are schools where great many students struggle to learn a basic curriculum.  However, for the Governor to claim that all sits at the feet of our teachers means he is ignoring vast amounts of evidence.  Dr. Aaron Pallas of Teachers College notes:

Anyone who doubts that poverty and district finances matter in the achievement equation need only look at a scatterplot of the percentage of third-graders in a school who are proficient in English Language Arts and the percentage of students in that school who are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch. In schools where 90 percent or more of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, 15 percent of the students are proficient. Conversely, in schools where fewer than 10 percent of students are free-lunch-eligible, an average of 53 percent are proficient. This is not because all of the good teachers are in low-poverty schools.

So while the Governor’s proposals will make it far less likely that any beginning teacher will ever reach tenure in New York state, his proposed “solution” for schools with very few students reaching proficiency on state exams has literally no connection to the strongest correlation with low performance — poverty.

On a much broader set of issues, I am not at all certain that Governor Cuomo REALLY wants parents who “understood what was happening with education to their children” — because what is happening right out of the Governor’s office is pitchfork worthy.

Does Governor Cuomo really want parents to understand what is happening with funding in Albany? If they did, they would know that both litigation and legislation committed Albany to increase annual education aid to districts by 7 billion dollars in 2007, but that the state remains about 5.6 billion dollars BELOW that target.  They would know that the Governor, who scoffs at the notion that schools are underfunded, continues to use the Gap Elimination Adjustment to plug holes in the operating budget by raiding promised aid to school districts, and that the GEA has stolen 8 billion dollars from districts financially squeezed on the other end by the property tax cap the Governor put in place.  They would know that using the funding formula put in place in 2007, Albany is shorting New York City as much as $3-4000 PER PUPIL in a system with over 1 million pupils.

They would know that the Governor’s pledge to increase education aid by $1.1 billion is less than 20% of the funding needed for the state to meet its obligations to schools districts, and that the $380 million he will allow if he does not get the changes he wants represents barely 7%.

Does Governor Cuomo really want parents to understand what is happening with charter school favoritism in Albany?  If they did, they would know that last year as New York Mayor Bill De Blasio was slowing down the expansion of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy chain of charter schools because one such expansion was set to kick students with special needs out of their school, Governor Cuomo did not merely support Eva Moskowitz’s multi-million dollar ad campaign against the Mayor and her Albany rally to pressure lawmakers — he participated in making the rally happen.  They would know that after blindsiding the Mayor who was in Albany to rally support for universal Pre-K the same day as Moskowitz shut down her schools and bused her students and parents to the state capitol, the Governor orchestrated budget legislation mandating that New York City pay the rent of all charter schools, even ones that can raise $7.75 million in a single fund raiser.  They would know that Ms. Moskowitz in particular keeps her operations so opaque that she has sued repeatedly to prevent the state from auditing her finances.  They would find out that these supposedly “public schools” have appallingly high attrition rates that come from the almost impossibly strict behavioral standards that are applied even to Kindergarten students, and they would know that a key ally of no-excuses charter schools, Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, openly admitted that such attrition is a feature rather than a bug and that the charter sector has no interest in educating all of our children.

I am quite sure that Governor Cuomo does not want parents to understand how Success Academy (and other charter school) donors have showered him with campaign donations, nor would he like them to tie his largesse to the charter sector to the same backers who have been steadily using charter schools to monetize public education expenditures.

Does Governor Cuomo really want parents to understand what is really happening with the PARRC examination proficiency scores?  If they did, they would know that far from representing a dramatic drop in student achievement, the drop in students reaching “proficient” or higher was engineered by the New York State Education Department under outgoing Commissioner John King.  They would know that “proficient” is neither tied to grade level expectations nor to any reasonable definition of “passing,” and they would know that when anti-teacher activists like Campbell Brown or public dollar profiteers like Eva Moskowitz repeatedly claim that our students are “failing” because of those exams that they are being “economical with the truth.”  They would know that when the Governor asks in his “Opportunity Agenda Book“:

“Last year, less than one percent of teachers in New York State were rated ineffective; but state test results show that statewide only 35.8 percent of our students in 3rd through 8th grades were proficient in math and 31.4 percent were proficient in English Language Arts. We must ask ourselves: how can so many of our students be failing if our teachers are all succeeding?” (p. 228)

…he has joined the anti-public school forces in thoroughly misrepresenting the meaning of the current test scores, and that such misrepresentation is almost certainly deliberate.  Parents would also learn that the value added models based on student standardized test scores that the Governor wants to raise to 50% of teacher evaluations are not endorsed by the American Statistical Association, and that there is no strong research basis for using them as such an important component of teacher evaluation.  They would understand that using a test score rigged to drop most students below the proficient level as the majority of teacher evaluation is little more than a set up to fire teachers with no benefit for their children.

Does Governor Cuomo really want parents to understand what is really happening with our democracy?  While Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s indictment for corruption represents old school quid pro quo misuse of public office for private gain, Governor Cuomo represents something potentially more dangerous to democracy.  Just 341 donors accounted for over half of the Governor’s $40 million campaign fundraising.  81.6% of his donors gave at least $10,000.  Among those donors are major backers of charter school expansion, including donors who funded a $4.2 million Students First NY effort to put the state senate in Republican hands and who collectively donated more than $160,000 directly to Governor Cuomo.

If parents “understand what is really happening” then they would likely notice how Governor Cuomo governs as if he is far more beholden to his high profile donors than to the voters of New York.

Do you REALLY want parents “to understand what is happening with education,” Mr. Cuomo?

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Filed under charter schools, Corruption, Funding, politics

Andrew Cuomo to New York State: Your Teachers Stink. I Will Fire Them. I will Break Their Union.

The gauntlet that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch picked up with their public correspondence in December has been thrown down.  The Governor announced his plans to revamp and revise education in New York with his State of the State address on January 21st, and it was accompanied by a book detailing his policy proposals.  On teacher evaluation, Governor Cuomo is delivering a massive change — and a direct challenge to community control of their teacher workforce.  If the governor gets his way, 50% of teachers’ evaluations will be controlled by students’ annual progress on standardized tests, and no teacher rated “ineffective” in either half of the evaluation will be scored higher than “developing.”   The other 50% of annual evaluations will be comprised of two observations, one by a school administrator and another by an “independent observer” in the form of an administrator from another district or a state approved outside agency.  The so-called “independent observer” observation will count for 35% of the evaluation.  Local administrators are to be restricted to 15%.

New York State principals?  Andrew Cuomo says you cannot do your jobs.  New York State communities?  Nobody in your town is qualified to evaluate your children’s teachers.  Andrew Cuomo wants to take that away for Albany.

Governor Cuomo insists that these draconian measures are necessary because only a third of New York students scored as proficient or highly proficient on the new Common Core aligned standardized examinations, and by his logic that means the teacher evaluation system, which currently weights the results of those exams for 20%, is “baloney” because only 1% of teachers were found ineffective.  However, tying a criticism of the teacher ineffectiveness to the CCSS aligned exams is flagrantly mendacious because “proficient” was never tied to “grade level” or “passing”;  it was tied to SAT scores loosely predictive of college success.

Governor Cuomo’s teacher evaluation plan is set to punish teachers for not graduating vastly more students ready to succeed in college, as measured by one test score, than currently attend college.

What can reasonably be predicted as an outcome of this?  Plenty.  And none of it will be pretty.

First, this policy will fall heavily upon districts with high levels of poverty which are tightly concentrated because of New York’s appallingly high Residential Income Segregation Index.  We know from disaggregated PISA data that schools with high levels of poverty struggle in standardized test achievement compared to schools in affluent communities. Following Governor Cuomo’s logic it is not that these schools and their teachers struggle with the long established deprivations of poverty upon their student population and would benefit from aggressive plans of economic renewal and integration; it is that their teachers are ineffective and need to be fired.

Second, no teacher in New York will be actually safe no matter how good they are or how talented their students.  The value-added models (VAMs) of teacher performance based on standardized tests are by now subject to so much research demonstrating their unreliability that using them at all is indefensible.  The American Statistical Association (ASA) warned last year that teacher input can only account for 1-14% of student variability on standardized tests, and VAM generated rankings of teachers are not stable, meaning a teacher can be in the top 20% in one year and slide below the median in a subsequent year.  If you think that your child attending a selective public school with a math teacher whose students all pass a challenging algebra examination will have that teacher spared via VAMs — think again.  Teachers who are excellent by every other conceivable model of assessment can be rated as the “worst” grade level teacher in New York City via value-added modeling.

And Governor Cuomo wants that to be 50% of teacher evaluations.

The predictable outcome of this will be an objectively worse education for nearly every student in the state.  Consequences from the No Child Left Behind law’s focus on test-based accountability include a steady narrowing of school curricula to subjects that are tested, leaving science, the social studies, the arts, and health as dwindling portions of public eduction.  Teaching to the test as is common practice in “no excuses” charter schools will become a prominent methodology in historically struggling schools, and it will grow in currently successful schools as well.  Teachers and administrators will have little choice — with so much riding on VAMs that unstable and able to find teachers of advanced students in the bottom 10% of teachers, test preparation as curriculum will spread.  Further, as experienced teachers are pushed out, the teacher workforce will become younger, assuming that New York State schools can possibly entice new teachers to start a career under these conditions.  These will be novices whose classroom skills will be on a steep learning curve for their early years, and many of them will be forced out by VAMs before reaching the point where their skills start to level off.

A less experienced teacher workforce teaching more and more to the test — THAT is the likely outcome of Governor Cuomo’s evaluation proposals.  There will also be no local measure that can preserve a teacher in his or her job because the only local component of the evaluation system – local administrator observations – will be restricted to 15%.  Are you a principal whose teachers work in underfunded facilities with students who live in poverty?  Tough.  Are you a parent whose child’s teacher works with gifted students in a curriculum accelerated 2-3 years beyond the test?  Tough.  Are you a school board member who wants to preserve the social studies, sciences, art, music, and health?  Tough.  85% of your teachers’ evaluations are outside the input of any local stakeholders; Albany will be in control.  And Governor Cuomo will hold nearly three quarters of a potential increase in aid for schools hostage unless he gets his way.

It is impossible to not connect the dots here.  Among Governor Cuomo’s most reliable donors are Wall Street supporters of charter school expansion who can turn such schools into revenue streams for private corporations using public money.  Charter schools, among whose strongest supporters at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently admitted are in the business of pushing out harder to educate children, have been turned into a way to monetize our public education budgets.  Governor Cuomo, who raised half of his $40 million election war chest from just 341 donors, owes that sector.

The only entity with enough members and resources to resist that is the NYSUT.

Most of Governor Cuomo’s teacher evaluation plans (and his other education proposals) will make our schools objectively worse places to learn with many fewer experienced teachers and a diminishing curriculum.  However, they will make the teachers’ union much weaker with an unstable and uncertain cadre of members who have less experience and no practical job security — and who will not be able to effectively resist more and more of our public schools turned over to private interests.

Everything about this is wrong.

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Filed under Corruption, New York Board of Regents, politics, schools, Testing, Unions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We cannot afford it any longer.

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