Tag Archives: testing

How Far Have We Sunk? Pretty Far.

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

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

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

picard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gates

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

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

Kindergarten

 

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

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

Can Teachers Talk About Opt Out?

New York City teachers Jia Lee, Lauren Cohen, and Kristin Taylor risked disciplinary action recently to speak with NBC news about their opposition to the state testing system and their support of the Opt Out movement.

bats

This was no small act on their part because the NYC DOE has sent multiple signals that it does not tolerate classroom teachers speaking against the tests which have been occupying schools’ time and attention this month.  District 15 Superintendent Anita Skop stated her belief that any teacher encouraging opt outs was engaging in political speech and that such acts were not permissible for teachers speaking as teachers. A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said that teachers are free to speak as private citizens but not to speak as “representatives of the department,” and New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina said “I don’t think that the teachers’ putting themselves in the middle of it is a good idea.”  None of these figures have specified what possible consequences could befall teachers for speaking in favor of opt out and against the state standardized tests – but the ambiguous statements alone are sufficient to deter many city teachers from speaking their mind.  Add in the history of “gag orders” that prevent teachers from discussing the contents of the examinations – even as professionals seeking to improve tests after they have been used – and speaking to the media as these teachers did is an act of exceptional bravery.

Walking the line between teacher and “private citizen” is exceptionally ambiguous.  Ms. Lee, Ms. Cohen, and Ms. Taylor were all identified as New York City teachers by the reporter in the story, but does that automatically make them not private citizens?  Most members of our society are not required to hide their professions when speaking on political matters within the public sphere, and in many communities, teachers’ identities are well known to parents, making the distinction between their professional and private selves far less distinct.  Furthermore, as professionals in a school system governed by different political systems, teachers have legitimate observations and, yes, criticism to make about policies that impact their work and, therefore, their students.  Simply saying teachers cannot be “political” as teachers is plainly too simplistic.

However, this cannot be only a matter of saying teachers have free speech rights in their role as teachers.  There are legal and legitimate limitations on what teachers can say. For example, federal law protects the privacy of students’ academic records and while a teacher can discuss a child’s performance with both parents and involved professionals in pursuit of helping that child, the law prevents that same teacher from discussing the child’s academic record outside of that context.  Teachers also possess academic freedom within the classroom, but that is not well defined, subject to significant limitations and considerations of the interests of school boards, communities, parents, and children.  Generally, teachers have to balance their rights with their significant responsibilities within the classroom, including their responsibility to the adopted curriculum in a district.

Outside of the classroom, teachers also have limits on what they can say and for good reasons.  The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against a teacher who claimed her free speech rights were violated when she was fired for keeping a public blog full of insults about students and parents in her school.  This is fundamentally different than writing about politics or using a public forum like letters to the editor to speak about “matters of public concern” as a citizen — her speech gave parents legitimate reasons to demand that she not teach their children.  The Washington branch of the ACLU maintains a page with various examples of speech scenarios in which a teacher may or may not be protected from job consequences, and the examples demonstrate that teachers often have additional constraints on their speech related to their ability to perform their responsibilities.  On the other hand, purely political speech, even related to education issues, can be strongly protected outside of the classroom.

Consider the case of Boston long term substitute teacher Jeffrey Herman who testified at a Boston City Council meeting against the expense of maintaining a Junior ROTC program in the city and advocating what he believed was a better use of those funds – and who was screamed at by the head of Boston English High School and essentially blacklisted from working there.  While that case was settled with no admission of wrongdoing by the city, the implication is clear enough:  Mr. Herman was entirely within his rights to speak in the public sphere on a matter of public concern.  A staff attorney for the ACLU made this obvious:  “Teachers are entitled to political opinions just like everyone else…We need them to feel free to share those opinions with public and elected officials, outside the school, without fear of losing their jobs for doing so. Jeff Herman had a right to speak out at City Hall about Boston spending over a million dollars on JROTC…”

This would seem to neatly point towards a general right for teachers to speak critically of standardized testing and in favor of opt out as long as they do not suggest that they are speaking for district and school administrations in the process.  While teachers are obligated to teach the adopted curriculum of the school and to participate in duties such as test administration, critiques of both the curriculum and testing are matters of public concern.  Administrators can probably restrict teachers from proactively soliciting opt outs on the school grounds, but they would be beyond bounds to restrict teachers from speaking elsewhere – even if their audience knows that they are teachers. Further, if asked by parents about the tests, it is very plausible that teachers have the right to offer an informed and critical perspective. Grumbling from Tweed Courthouse notwithstanding, Ms. Lee, Ms. Cohen, and Ms Taylor should be secure in their advocacy and their speaking with reporters.

But perhaps this should not merely be a matter of whether or not teachers disciplined for speaking against testing could win a civil rights suit.  Perhaps this needs to be framed as a matter of professionalism and professional judgement because while teachers have responsibilities and rights in the performance of their work, they also have professional obligations and norms that define what it means to be a teacher.  Among those is the need to speak up when children are being ill served or harmed by what is going on within school.  John Goodlad referred to practicing “good moral stewardship of schools” and this principle is as important to teaching as “do no harm” is for medicine or being a zealous advocate is for law.  Teachers are given an awesome and sacred trust – the intellectual, social, and emotional well being and growth of other people’s children.  Speaking out when that trust is in jeopardy is not simply a question of Constitutional rights.  It is a moral obligation.

Do teachers have good reason for concern about how these tests impact their stewardship?   New York City teacher Katie Lapham certainly makes a compelling case:

The reading passages were excerpts and articles from authentic texts (magazines and books).  Pearson, the NYSED or Questar did a poor job of selecting and contextualizing the excerpts in the student test booklets.  How many students actually read the one-to-two sentence summaries that appeared at the beginning of the stories? One excerpt in particular contained numerous characters and settings and no clear story focus.  The vocabulary in the non-fiction passages was very technical and specific to topics largely unfamiliar to the average third grader.  In other words, the passages were not meaningful. Many students could not connect the text-to-self nor could they tap into prior knowledge to facilitate comprehension.

The questions were confusing.  They were so sophisticated that it appeared incongruous to me to watch a third grader wiggle her tooth while simultaneously struggle to answer high school-level questions. How does one paragraph relate to another?, for example. Unfortunately, I can’t disclose more.  The multiple-choice answer choices were tricky, too. Students had to figure out the best answer among four answer choices, one of which was perfectly reasonable but not the best answer.

NYSED claims they removed time limits from the test in order to remove performance pressure from very young children, but there are documented cases of this actually matter the exams worse for students.  A Brooklyn teacher blogging anonymously notes:

This afternoon I saw one of my former students still working on her ELA test at 2:45 pm. Her face was pained and she looked exhausted. She had worked on her test until dismissal for the first two days of testing as well. 18 hours. She’s 9.

This is a student who is far above grade level in reading, writing and every measurable area imaginable. She definitely got a 3 or 4 on this test. She is a hard worker and powers through challenges with quiet strength and determination. She is not “coddled.” She is sweet, brilliant and creative and as far as I know she has always loved school. She is also shy and a perfectionist.

After 18 hours of testing over 3 days, she emerged from the classroom in a daze. I asked her if she was ok, and offered her a hug. She actually fell into my arms and burst into tears. I tried to cheer her up but my heart was breaking. She asked if she could draw for a while in my room to calm down and then cried over her drawing for the next 20 minutes.

New York City education advocate Leonie Haimson reported on numerous items of test content that she was able to glean from various sources.  They included a sixth grade test including a 17th century poem often studied in college, obscure vocabulary in the 8th grade exam, disturbing product placements within reading passages, and missing prep pages without adequate instructions on how to assist students.

Beyond these specific examples, teachers can be rightly concerned about the entire environment within which these exams take place.  Since No Child Left Behind was passed in 2001, testing and test preparation have become more and more ends unto themselves instead of quiet background monitoring of the school system.  We have spent more than a decade now in a policy cycle based upon “test-label-punish” without considering how to give schools teaching our most vulnerable students the resources and supports needed to do right by those children, their families, and communities.  And we have very, very little to show for it except a narrowing curriculum in communities across the country and a crushing increase of academic work at younger and younger ages despite the abject harm it inflicts upon children who need play to learn and to be healthy.  Practicing “good stewardship” as a professional teacher clearly embraces openly objecting to these harmful practices.

Ms. Lee told NBC, ““Parents should definitely opt out. Refuse. Boycott these tests because change will not happen with compliance.”  She went on to call herself a “conscientious objector.”

She is also a true professional, guarding the well being of the children entrusted to her.

 

 

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Filed under classrooms, NCLB, Opt Out, politics, schools, Social Justice, standards, teacher professsionalism, Testing

NYC Hasn’t Gotten the Opt Out Memo

Let’s begin with one simple premise: nobody at the New York State Education Department wants to see Opt Out continue to be a significant factor in the Empire State.  The United States Department of Education sent a variety of states letters explaining they had an obligation to test 95% of all student in all subgroups without fail, even offering various measures from cajoling to threatening that the states could take to get all of those students to sit down and be tested. After some initial stumbles, NYSED settled on a “kinder and gentler” approach, trying to coax the 20% of eligible families to opt back in to the tests.  Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and Governor Andrew Cuomo quickly ran away from NYSED Commissioner Elia’s suggestion that districts with high opt out might lose funding.  In short order, Commissioner Elia affirmed that her office had no intention of withholding funds and admitted that parents had the legal right to refuse to submit their child for the state exams.  In the following months, Albany introduced a series of changes to the exams – such as reducing them by a few question and removing time limits – that they hoped with allay parental concerns, and Commissioner Elia’s office put together a “tool kit” for district and schools to use to explain the exams to parents.  The information provided for both letters and presentations emphasizes what NYSED sees as positive and necessary aspects of the tests instead of negative consequences for low test participation rates.

Parents and educators may disagree about the significance of the changes and about the accuracy of the information in the state materials, but the strategy was obvious: Gently persuade parents and communities back into the fold.  This was certainly a sensible approach considering the pasting Albany took not only on state testing but also on the entire education agenda championed by Governor Cuomo throughout 2015.  Even before he managed to bully his plans to use state tests as 50% of teacher evaluations through the Assembly, voters disapproved of his education agenda by extremely wide margins.  The Governor took such a pummeling in the polls on education in 2015, that his 2016 budget address only had 364 words on P-12 education that more or less reduced his entire platform to “yadda yadda yadda…teachers are swell.”  When it comes to public education in the Empire State, our leaders in Albany have spent most of 2016 trying to pour gallons of honey on their plate full of vinegar.

Someone in New York City did not get the memo, apparently.

Test refusal was not a significant issue in New York City last year, although a handful of schools saw much higher opt out rates than the city in general. But the office of New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina apparently wants to take no chances of it gaining more than a toehold.  Pro-testing forces upstate seem happy to rely upon outside groups to carry the “opt in” message and to focus on emphasizing what they see as meeting test protesters part way, but the offices in Tweed aren’t taking any risks that opt out can grow and thrive in the Big Apple. In the run up to the tests, The New York Times reported ongoing and serious negative talk about teachers who spoke out against the tests and in favor of opting out:

At a forum in December, Anita Skop, the superintendent of District 15 in Brooklyn, which had the highest rate of test refusals in the city last year, said that for an educator to encourage opting out was a political act and that public employees were barred from using their positions to make political statements.

On March 7, the teachers at Public School 234 in TriBeCa, where only two students opted out last year, emailed the school’s parents a broadside against the tests. The email said the exams hurt “every single class of students across the school” because of the resources they consumed.

But 10 days later, when dozens of parents showed up for a PTA meeting where they expected to hear more about the tests, the teachers were nowhere to be seen. The school’s principal explained that “it didn’t feel safe” for them to speak, adding that their union had informed them that their email could be considered insubordination. The principal, Lisa Ripperger, introduced an official from the Education Department who was there to “help oversee our meeting.”

Several principals said they had been told by either the schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, or their superintendents that they and their teachers should not encourage opting out. There were no specific consequences mentioned, but the warnings were enough to deter some educators.

One could possibly claim teachers speaking against the tests are engaging in political speech against contract rule – or one could argue they are expressing a professional opinion on the negative impact of testing they see with their own eyes in their own classrooms.  Certainly, the letter from PS234 teachers, as described, focuses on the consequences to students’ learning conditions rather than on any political outcome, but DOE is clearly trying to back channel messages to principals and teachers that negative comments about the test are off limits.  That would certainly explain an incident at PS 84 in Williamsburg where a principal chastised a fifth grader handing out Opt Out information until the child cried and then herded all third through fifth grade into an impromptu assembly to tell them to “get this opt out stuff out of your head.”  The principal went on to tell students not to listen to their parents and that the state exams would make them smarter.

That was not the behavior of a professional educational leader who feels free to allow open discussion of an important issue within the school.  For that matter, the principal’s behavior was arguably in violation of long standing case law on students’ first amendment rights within school.

Susan Trout, a Manhattan parent, forwarded a letter that her child’s middle school principal sent to all 8th grade parents, warning them about the consequences of a large number of opt outs:

This is a “low stakes year” for the eighth graders. Their performance on the exams will not be used by the high schools for placement or for admissions. It is not, however, a “low stakes year” for *******. If we do not test 95% of our students, the school will automatically be categorized as a School Under Review by New York State. This will result in a series of measures which may force us to change our curriculum, our staffing decisions and our program. It most certainly comes with close review of the school by the state, along with the paperwork to defend the school’s performance. This may negatively affect the students who will be at ***** for the next couple of years.

According to Ms. Trout, parents in her school who wrote to the principal expressing their desire to opt out of the test were then contacted individually by the school’s parent coordinator with the following message:

Hello.  By refusing to participate, you are putting us in jeopardy of no longer being considered a school in good standing.  We must have 95% participation to keep our school grade as is.  I would ask you to reconsider having your children take the test.  It is actually good practice for  their high school career since they will be tested a great deal in the college application process!

She then contacted the office of the Public Advocate in New York City for clarification, and got quite a different answer:

Regulations state that if a district has 3 consecutive years failing a SPECIFIC category, then they can be identified. If one year it’s because of special Ed scores, next year participation rates, the next was a whole other category, then no changes. Has to be failure of the SAME category 3 years running.  Even the handful of districts that fell below 95% for 4 years in a row (handful in NYS) were still not penalized or labeled. The label forces a plan put in place to fix the category/reason for failure, in this case, a parent boycott. The state knew better than to go forward with any consequence. 

Districts that were focus districts last year AND had less than 95% were taken off the list. Doesn’t make sense that % alone would cause them to be labeled. I realize all of the above specifies districts, not schools. However,confirmed by DOE staffer: there is absolutely NO POLICY that says one instance of <95% participation would result in “automatic characterization” of anything by NYS. It’s not an “automatic” process and is in fact based upon the previous 2-3 years in the event that a school falls below 95% in one year.

The information given by DOE to the Public Advocate’s office is diametrically opposed to the information a middle school administration circulated to parents.  Ms. Trout asked her parent coordinator about this discrepancy and was told that the information was from a “directive” from the district superintendent. Again, this is completely out of proportion to what any other level of education governance in the state is saying right now, and it is vexing, not because the city administration believes in testing, but because it is relying on incomplete and often misleading means to support the tests.

There was a brief moment, when it looked like the NYC educational bureaucracy was softening a bit.  Chancellor Farina was reported as having said in a private meeting that she would consider opting out a child if that child had a certain kind of Individualized Education Plan or was a new arrival in the country with very limited English, and Mayor Bill de Blasio met with opt out advocates in order to hear their views, clarifying that he still thought the tests were important.

Any hope that there was room for openness at Tweed, however, was shut down rapidly as the tests began this week.  Chancellor Farina said that her earlier comments were taken “out of context” and she further chastised parents who opt out, saying: “I believe students go to school to be held accountable for their work…What are you saying about your child?  What are you saying about your belief in them to do something that they’ve been gearing for all year?” This statement is fairly breathtaking.  It is one thing to believe in a system of school accountability that includes standardized testing, although the history of the No Child Left Behind era is pretty clear on this: test based accountability has had 15 years for results and it does not have themBut the Chancellor’s statement frames the accountability tests as objectives of the school year unto themselves.  The tests hold students “accountable for their work”?  The state standardized accountability test is “something they’ve been gearing for all year”?  I can honestly think of few ways of framing this worse than Chancellor Farina just did.  My children are preparing for many important things in their education this year – sitting in a standardized exam that takes longer to finish than the LSAT or the MCAT is just about the least important thing they could do.

I suppose — I just suppose — that we could be at least a little grateful for the wild spinning and random lashing out from the Chancellor’s office.  NYSED has tinkered a smidgen around the edges of the tests and they’ve taken a softer tone with the public.  But there can be no doubt – they want Opt Out to go away so they can keep these tests as the status quo.  Chancellor Farina, on the other hand, is being aggressive about her dislike for Opting Out, leading to repeated situations where parents are being told information that is flatly contrary to NYSED’s stated policies. History suggests that this level of overreaction and misdirection aimed at parents backfires.  If Opt Out grows in NYC, we might just have the Chancellor to thank for it.

Opting Out

 

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Filed under Activism, MaryEllen Elia, NCLB, Opt Out, Testing

No, You Cannot Test My Child

Dear Local Education Authority (LEA), State Education Authority (SEA), and Federal Education Bureaucrat (FEB?),

We are rapidly approaching the annual state mandated testing ritual in public school, and it has become evident that all of you are a little nervous about that.  I know this because you keep sending letters to each other about how important it is that every LEA test 95% of all children in every school and that every SEA make certain that LEAs know just how important this is.  Last Fall, FEB Ann Whalen sent a dozen SEAs letters explaining to them just how important it is that they meet their testing requirements and suggesting a range of measures, both persuasive and punitive, if LEAs did not make their testing goals.  This was followed by another letter to all states essentially reiterating the point. SEAs have been busy trying to impress upon their LEAs how seriously they take the federal requirement to test 95% of all students in all schools although with different approaches.  In Connecticut, state officials have more or less threatened LEAs, while New York, home of the largest test refusal movement in the country, has tried to woo back refusing parents to the wonderful world of testing with a series of concessions on the use of tests for teacher assessment and the timed nature of the tests and a nifty “tool kit” to explain how awesome testing can be.

So, okay, I get it: A lot of you SEAs have been nervous about what the FEBs are saying, and you are pressuring your LEAs to use both honey and vinegar to convince parents to just up and let their kids be tested already.

cat on leash

You still can’t test my kid.

I know that you are supposed to try to convince me, otherwise, and it is probably too much to ask you to save yourself the time.  However, if you do feel the need to persuade me that the testing ritual is excellent and worthwhile, you should know that I have heard most of your arguments, and, frankly, you need new ones.

To begin with, I am actually aware that my children will take tests during their lives, and it is not my intention to keep them from ever experiencing a standardized test.  The thing is that most of those tests will actually serve some purpose for their lives if and when they take them.  While standardized test measures are of questionable quality for college, graduate school, or professional school admission, where they are required to pursue those goals, my children will take them at the appropriate time.  You should also know that I expect my children to take teacher made tests throughout their education.  Tests and other assessments are part of an education, and professional teachers know how to use all kinds of tools to see how well their students are learning.

But when tests used for a state accountability system take nine hours – 6 hours LONGER than the LSAT and and an hour and half longer than the MCAT – and when the tests have to be taken every.single.year – something is seriously out of whack.  Of course, the tests themselves are not the only issue.  Because of the incentives attached to these tests, districts and schools across the country spend far more time preparing for and practicing test taking that any scheme for school accountability can justify.  Robert Pondiscio, Vice President of External Affairs for the pro-education reform Thomas B. Fordham Institute, gets this and has urged federal officials to back off the warped incentive systems that make standardized tests end unto themselves.  He’s argued that as long as punishing consequences for schools and teachers are attached to testing, we will have this problem.  So far, he hasn’t been listened to much.

So I expect that my children will taken standardized tests – possibly many over the course of their lives.  But when a state accountability test consumes so much time and is attached to stakes that warp my children’s education, well, the cart is definitely in front of the horse.

cart_before_horse

Further, I already know that it is a matter of faith at the Federal DOE that without testing we can never look a second grader in the eye and tell her ‘You’re on track, you’re going to be able to go to a good college, or you’re not.’ Frankly, if that is your goal for a conversation with a 7 year old child, then I’d kindly ask you to never visit a school, thanks, but beyond that, it remains a horrible failure of imagination to think that a state accountability test is our best and essential way to check whether or not an individual child is learning.  If you really want to increase the ability of parents to understand how well their children are doing, there are tools with far greater sophistication that teachers could actually use in their classrooms than an accountability test given in April whose results don’t come back until the next school year is well underway.  In fact, considering the amount of time in the school year spent scrambling to prepare for and to administer state tests, it is entirely counter-intuitive to think these tests are really good for telling me how my children are doing.  And if we need to increase parental engagement with their children’s education in all of our communities, what makes more sense?  Investing in strategies and programs that are proven to help parents and guardians connect with school? Or a two page score report that doesn’t include the slightest hint of what kind of test questions the test taker got wrong or how to learn from them?

The question was rhetorical, by the way.

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I also understand that you want me to know that without a system of annual standardized testing with full participation then there will be no accountability for my local schools and they will be free to ignore the needs of minority children at will.  This is certainly an argument that has been made with vigor, and it is one our friends the FEBs have insisted is the primary reason for testing every child in every year.  I will admit there is something to this argument – not because annual testing has been a great force for making education for all students equitable.  Fifteen years in and test-based accountability has been pretty wretched at that goal.  It is, however, true that our school system has nowhere near the distribution of opportunity that would make the promise of a democratic school system a reality.

But test-based accountability has the whole thing reversed.  We have a test-based “achievement gap” which reflects the opportunity gap that exists across communities all over the country.  To suggest that the test measured gaps result in the economic gaps ignores every bit of nuance and complexity that we know about both poverty’s impacts and how segregation by income concentrates large percentages of children from poor households into specific neighborhoods.  The connection between poverty and tested results is so tight that Dr. Christopher Tienken and colleagues of Seton Hall University were able to use census data to accurately predict student proficiency scores on state tests in different communities.  State accountability testing is telling us very little that we do not already know.

On the other hand, those same tests have been giving ammunition to policies that insist upon educational “improvement” without focusing upon the resources necessary to work successfully with high need students: smaller class sizes, wrap around services, teacher retention policies, facility improvements, extended programs and after school supervision – none of it is free and very little of it has been offered to schools and districts under threat because of lagging test scores.  Instead of genuine investment in their schools and communities, these neighborhoods are offered the “creative disruption” of school privatization that saps resources from fully public schools without accountability – all justified by test scores.  No wonder then that there is a small but significant and growing conversation among civil rights activists about whether or not annual testing is the tool it was presented to be in NCLB.

charter

My family does understand the pressure you are under, LEA.  The SEA, under a lot of heat from the FEBs, has been issuing dire warnings if 95% of all students are not tested.  Most of that is just hot air, however, and as long as you do actually test the children whose families do not opt out, you have done what you can reasonably be expected to do.  We’ve spoken as a family all together, adults and children, and we simply do not think that any of the arguments you have made or are likely to make in favor of annual testing are going to sway us.  When there is a state accountability system that is rational and used as the basis for helping schools, teachers, and students, when we accept that community and school improvement have to happen together, and when we recognize that we cannot improve schools without committing the necessary resources, then we’ll reconsider our decision.

Until then, no, you cannot test my child.

 

 

 

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Filed under Data, ESSA, Funding, NCLB, Opt Out, schools, Testing

“Successification”

Another month, another Success Academy scandal.

This time it involves an undercover video of a first grade teacher in Success Academy Cobble Hill in Brooklyn that was shot by an assistant teacher who was unnerved by the ongoing abusive behavior of the lead teacher, one of the networks “exemplar teachers” who is considered so effective she trains her colleagues.  The video, submitted to the New York Times, was shot in 2014 and was given to reporters when the assistant teacher left the Success Academy network last year.  The video is hard to watch by anyone with a hint of empathy for very young children struggling with instructions and a challenging concept.  It begins with a room of Success Academy students sitting cross-legged around the classroom rug, hands folded, backs in fully upright posture.  The teacher instructs a little girl to “count it again, making sure you are counting correctly.”  The girl pauses, apparently confused, and the teacher commands her to “count” in a quiet but stern voice.  The girl begins to count and then looks at the teacher who immediately rips her paper in half, throws it at the child, and points sharply to a corner of the room:

Go to the calm down chair and sit.  There is nothing that infuriates me more than when you don’t do what’s on your paper. Somebody come up and show me how she should have counted to get her answer done with one and a split. Show my friends and teach them. (a child does as she says)  Thank you. Do NOT go back to your seat and show me one thing and then don’t do it here.  You’re confusing everybody. Very upset and very disappointed.

Every bit of that was delivered in a loud and angry tone of voice.

Kate Taylor, who wrote the story for the Times, reported that a Success Academy spokesperson said the teacher’s behavior was “shocking” and had been suspended from teaching, but was then back only a week and half later and still in the role of “exemplar” teacher.  Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz cited network manuals that say teachers should never use sarcastic tones or humiliate students, and, as is typical, dismissed the video as an “anomaly,” telling Ms. Taylor that the teacher reacted emotionally because she “so desperately wants her kids to succeed and to fulfill their potential.”  Ms. Moskowitz went on to insist that the video meant nothing and questioned the motives of the former assistant teacher who took it.

This video is not an accident.  It was taken because the assistant teacher had become concerned about daily occurrences of abusive behavior and did not merely get lucky to begin filming the lead teacher at the precise moment when she anomalously lit into a very young child for a simple mistake.  While the network defended itself, Ms. Taylor interviewed 20 current and former teachers whose statements indicate the behavior caught on the video is far more widespread in Success Academy than Ms. Moskowitz and her defenders admit.  One teacher, Jessica Reid Sliwerski, who worked for three years as both a teacher and as an assistant principal said that embarrassing children for “slipshod” work is both common and often encouraged: “It’s this culture of, ‘If you’ve made them cry, you’ve succeeded in getting your point across.”   New York University education professor Joseph P. McDonald said he would hardly be surprised if the classroom was one where children were often afraid. “The fear is likely not only about whether my teacher may at any time erupt with anger and punish me dramatically, but also whether I can ever be safe making mistakes.”  This was confirmed by another former Success Academy teacher, Carly Ginsberg, who said she witnessed papers torn up in front of children as young as kindergarten, an assistant principal openly mocking a low test score in front of the child, and a lead kindergarten teacher who made a little girl cry so hard that she vomited.

None of this is surprising to observers who have long known how Success Academy uses staggering pressure and laser-like focus on standardized test scores to get their results and to drive away children who cannot quickly and totally conform.  Kate Taylor’s lengthy examination of the culture of the school last summer documents it,  John Merrow’s story on Success Academy’s hefty use of out of school suspensions confirms it, and the network’s scramble to explain away a principal who compiled a “got to go” list of children to drive out of the school pretty much sealed it.  Success Academy does not merely have high expectations and sets lofty goals; it single-mindedly pursues them with a near zero tolerance for mistakes and for any behavior outside its rigidly defined norms.  Children, and teachers for that matter, who cannot swiftly comply are subjected to mounting pressure until they either break or go away.

I’ve written previously that Eva Moskowitz and Success Academy are likely to continue to have bad press for the simple reason that there are too many former Success Academy families and teachers to keep the kind of message discipline and information control that the network has employed until recently.  If Success Academy were merely an extreme anomaly in our education system, it would be possible to indulge in a bit of schadenfreude over Ms. Moskowitz’s obvious discomfort and inability to keep up the convincing arrogance that has typified her tenure as an education leader.  The trouble is that while Success Academy may be an extreme instantiation of disturbing and unethical priorities in our education system, it is by no means alone.  To varying degrees (and predating the founding of Ms. Moskowtiz’s network), huge swaths of American education have fallen victim to Successification: creeping emphasis on the shallowest of measures as ends unto themselves, the steady assault on childhood as a time of play and exploration, growing intolerance for error in both answers and behavior.  We are doing this to ourselves and to our children.

Children of color have long known that schools in many cities show almost fanatical intolerance for misbehavior.  The proliferation of “zero-tolerance” policies has lead to a “school to prison pipeline” where minor infractions of rules are criminalized and school discipline is routinely farmed out to police enforcement.  In this video by the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Project Liberty, New York City students describe their experiences with these policies and the impact it has on their ability to even think about school success and their future:

Success Academy may be a pioneer in subjecting very young students to out of school suspensions and extreme levels of behavioral conformity, but schools throughout our vast education system subject students to direct contact with police and arrest for rules violations that should be treated vastly differently.  The cycle here is especially vicious as suspended students often have home environments that cannot provide structure and supervision while they are out of school, leading to far greater risk of dropping out and ending up within the criminal justice system.

Schools that serve students from economically and racially privileged backgrounds place their own forms of pressure on students.  Writing in The Atlantic magazine, Erika Chistakis explained how research is now showing that the increasing emphasis on academics at younger and younger ages, even to preschool children, is actually harmful:

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

That’s right. The same educational policies that are pushing academic goals down to ever earlier levels seem to be contributing to—while at the same time obscuring—the fact that young children are gaining fewer skills, not more.

Ms. Christakis also noted that many parents of preschool aged children approved of the new approaches because of palpable fear that their children would fall behind others and that an early stumble could have life altering consequences.  Peter Greene, a Pennsylvania teacher and blogger, notes a similar theme among his own students in this very important essay entitled “One Wrong Move.”   He describes a class of honors students in his small town school completely paralyzed by the fear of making errors that they could never do anything without complete assurance they would get it completely correct, all because of the outsized risks associated with ever being wrong.  It reminds me very much of my own college students who are bright, caring, eager, passionate – and who are geniuses at  completing four hours of homework assigned on a Monday and due on Tuesday, but who, by their own admission have very little experience with high risk work that requires them to embrace uncertainty and the possibility of instructive failure.

I was recently walking my own children to school in our New York City neighborhood when we were passed by a father and son walking together.  The child looked to be about in 4th or 5th grade and was saying to his father, “You know in my school a one or a two are really not looked at as something good.”  It took me a moment, and then I realized he was talking about the level indicators on the New York State assessment system that are baked into elementary school report cards as the numbers 1 through 4.  At what point does it become painfully absurd for an elementary school student to have internalized the language of academic standards performance levels, and at what point does it become unethical for him to know what is or is not approved of in his school?  But this is just another example for where we have come in our education system by making performance to cut levels on standardized exams more important than actual learning.  We have normalized this, and our children know it.

As is typical for Eva Moskowitz, the Success Academy leader lashed out at The New York Times in an email circulated to all of her employees where she claimed the newspaper has a “vendetta” against her and called her critics “haters” who are trying to “bully” the network.  While it may be desirable, even necessary, to deflate the self aggrandizing mythology of Success Academy by documenting reality, it is also important to remember that the charter network is not actually the illness.  It is merely an extreme rash that has broken on the surface.  Looking deeper, it is evident that much of our schooling today suffers from “Successification”.  Whether it is black and brown children subjected to zero tolerance policies that send them on a collision course with the criminal justice system or it is students terrified of making errors because their education has no time for learning from mistakes and genuine discovery, we are slowly building a school system where the worst priorities are granted full control.

It is time for a good, long, hard look in the mirror to see if Eva Moskowitz is staring back at us.

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Filed under charter schools, child development, Media, racism, schools, Social Justice, teaching, Testing

“Education Next” Discovers That Water is Wet

Education Next is a reliable source of pro-education reform content.  Published by Stanford University’s libertarian leaning Hoover Institution which “seeks to secure and safeguard peace, improve the human condition, and limit government intrusion into the lives of individuals,” the magazine/journal is also sponsored by Kennedy School of Government’s Program on Education Policy and Governance (affiliated with reliably pro-reform organizations like the Heritage Foundation, the Alliance for School Choice,  Center for Education Reform, and the Heartland Institute) and the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, dedicated to the premise that pretty much our entire education system is dysfunctional or dumbed down.  Education Next blends characteristics of magazine publishing and peer reviewed journals in a quarterly publication that occasionally has tastes towards provocations that few purely academic journals would attempt.  Michael Petrilli, the President of Fordham, is both a research fellow at Hoover and an editor at Education Next, and, by his own admission, loves “to mix it up” – which can put the publication in controversial spots even within the pro-reform community.

For the Summer 2016 issue, the publication is not courting controversy so much as it is stating the obvious and begging the question.  Editor-in-Chief and Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government at Harvard University Paul Peterson and Harvard post-doctoral candidates Samuel Barrows and Thomas Gift offer us the “good news” that in the wake of Common Core, states are setting “rigorous standards.”  I say this with a degree of tongue-in-cheek because the article’s conclusion are fairly obvious – if you start with the premise that everything education reform has been saying for the past decade and a half is pretty much entirely true.  Raise questions or complications to the exercise of standards, high stakes accountability testing, and their utility as policy levers and the entire exercise gets a lot less laudatory.

Dr. Peterson and his associates lay out their case like this:

  • Most states and the District of Columbia adopted the Common Core State Standards or some variation of the standards.  To their credit, the authors do not avoid the major role of the Gates Foundation in financially supporting the CCSS and of the Obama administration in creating incentives for states to adopt the standards, and they provide some insight into the opposition to the standards from both liberal and conservative sides of the issue (although they greatly oversimplify liberal concerns to union politics – even though both major national teacher unions signed on the Common Core experiment).
  • Since 2005, Education Next has used a grade scale for state proficiency standards developed by the Program on Education Policy and Governance where Dr. Peterson works (and which is a sponsor of Education Next).  According to this scale “state standards have suddenly skyrocketed.”
  • The authors also infer that if results from NCLB mandated annual proficiency examinations are close to state results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) then the state proficiency standard is as strict as the NAEP.  The authors refer to their assessment of states as “truth in advertising” about how well states tell parents how their children are actually doing.  This is another variation of the “honesty gap” argument that has was featured prominently by education reformers as states and communities got ready to receive the results of Common Core aligned testing.
  • According to the “size of the difference between the percentages of students identified as proficient by state and by NAEP exams in 4th and 8th grade math and reading,” “the last two years have witnessed the largest jump in state standards since they were established as part of the federal accountability program.”  The authors report that 36 states have “strengthened their standards,” and they further declare “the Common Core consortium has achieved one of its key policy objectives: the raising of state proficiency standards throughout much of the United States.”
  • The authors admit that the opt out rates in some states may complicate these scores; to whatever degree students who refuse the tests would have been high scorers, this would artificially lower the percentage of students scoring proficient.  Further, Massachusetts allowed districts to select between the state’s original MCAS exams or the new PARCC exams, but there is no way as of yet to know if higher performing districts kept the MCAS.
  • The authors also observe that states’ standards performance has narrowed recently with 80% of state proficiency rates being within 15 points of their NAEP results.

So to sum up: The federal government provided incentives and policy pressure for states to sign on to the Common Core State Standards.  States are now administering federally mandated accountability testing aligned with those standards (28 of them with either the PARCC or SBAC testing groups specifically chartered to write CCSS aligned exams).  The percentage of students who rank proficient in these exams is much closer to the percentage of students who rank proficient on the NAEP in those same states.  Education Next handed out a bunch of As to states because they “raised their standards.”

In other news: Water is wet.

water is wet

Dr. Peterson’s argument here is a little bit as if I took up alpaca ranching and then two years later praised myself for all of the timid, wooly, camelids on my property.  Education Next may give states enormous credit for decreasing the percentage of students who are deemed proficient in their state tests and bringing those percentages closer to the results of the NAEP, but the desirability of this is unexamined as is why doing so raises a state in the authors’ estimation.

This is no small question because it is hardly a given that a decrease in the gap between state exam proficiency percentages and those on NAEP indicates actual educational improvement or even that standards are actually “rigorous” as the Education Next headline claims.  New Jersey, for example, scored very well in the authors’ rating with 2.1% fewer students ranked as proficient in state testing compared to the last NAEP.  According to Education Next, New Jersey earned only a C in 2005 well before the Common Core State Standards, but research by Dr. Chris Tienken and Dr. Eunyoung Kim of Seton Hall University with Dr. Dario Sforza, Principal of Henry B. Pecton Regional High School, found that, using Webb’s Depth of Knowledge framework, New Jersey’s pre-Common Core Standards required more creative and strategic thinking in English Language Arts.  New Jersey may have scored higher on Education Next’s metric, but the standards being used in K-12 English arguably demand less higher order thinking.

Dr. Peterson and his associates also leave the desirability of getting state proficiency levels closer to NAEP’s entirely unexamined and simply assume that it is a good thing.  This, too, is no small question because the NAEP’s proficiency targets are deliberately set very high.  Dr. Diane Ravitch of New York University sat on the NAEP Board of Governors for seven years and explains here that proficient and highly proficient in the NAEP are pegged to very high level work in the A range for most students.  Further, she explains here that this was done deliberately because Dr. Chester Finn, who chaired the NAEP Board, is not impressed with the quality of American education in general and wanted the proficiency levels in NAEP to reflect that.  The PARCC consortium consulted NAEP heavily in the creation of its test while SBAC used far less from the NAEP, but as of last May, SBAC did not expect scores to vary that much from the national program.  Even outside the consortia, states looked very deliberately to decrease the number of students labeled proficient.  New York State linked its proficiency levels to performance on the test that an ETS study said was predictive of SAT scores only a third of students obtain; lo and behold, the number of students labeled proficient dropped to about a third.  This was also roughly the same as New York’s eighth grade NAEP English results which have been 33% or 35% at proficient or above since 2003.  Just for good measure, 33.2% of New Yorkers over the age of 25 have a Bachelor’s degree or higher.

None of this, however, changes a simple fact: the setting of cut scores for different levels of proficiency is a choice independent of how the scale scores from the exams are distributed.  New Jersey teacher, Rutgers graduate student, and blogger Jersey Jazzman deftly explains that even when New York set its cut scores to a very high level, the distribution of scale scores on the state exam barely moved, and that is because the decision to place cut scores is independent of how students do on the test itself and of how schools and districts and states compare to each other.  Gaps between subgroups and communities still exist and students’ performance on the test itself remains largely unchanged whether “proficient” is set to capture 60% of all test takes or 30%.  It should be noted that based on the authors’ descriptions, a state could probably have changed nothing about their standards or their accountability exam, set their cut scores to label fewer kids as proficient, and gotten a high grade in their report.

Left undiscussed is whether or not this is remotely desirable for a state system of accountability testing.  If “proficient” and “highly proficient” are achievement labels that should be reserved for students likely to go to a four year college or university, then education reform advocates have never effectively made that case to the public, preferring instead to point to the results on state testing that have been designed with this specific result in mind and declaring themselves correct about how poor a job our nation’s schools are doing. On the other hand, even if these cut score level are correct, what is the argument that we need vastly more children scoring at these levels?  I’ve argued repeatedly on these pages that there is little economic evidence that the nation’s economy is in need of more Bachelor’s degrees and that the inability of people to get ahead with a college education or to live above a subsistence level without one is a much greater crisis needing vastly more widespread action than can be achieved by schools alone.  While it is absolutely true that educational opportunity, like economic opportunity, is unequally distributed by race and class, the solutions for that are not going to be found by rigging cut scores but rather by substantially addressing something education reformers today generally discount: inequitable and inadequate school funding.

Ultimately, a lot of education reform, this report included, is a giant exercise of begging the question where a conclusion is presumed to be true without ever having been argued:

“These test results show that states have made their proficiency standards more rigorous.”

“Why do they show that?”

“The percentages of students scoring ‘proficient’ is closer to the NAEP than on prior tests.”

“Why does that show that the state standards are more rigorous?”

“Because NAEP is a rigorous exam.”

hermione_eye_roll

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Filed under Common Core, Data, Gates Foundation, NCLB, PARCC, standards, Testing

New York Testing Gets a Bit Weird

I cannot imagine that it is easy being New York Stated Education Department Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.  Brought to Albany in May of last year, she came to a post where her predecessor, Dr. John King Jr., had strained relationships with many parents and communities to the breaking point.  Commissioner Elia arrived in the wake of record breaking test refusal in her new state, and her obvious job was to mend fences between NYSED and school districts and parents while not backing off of the Common Core Standards, the accompanying testing, and plans to use test data in the evaluation of districts, schools, and teachers.  In most respects, she was an ideal pick for the job.  She is clearly a believer in today’s reform environment, having taken on a $100 million grant for Florida’s sprawling Hillsborough district from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation  to implement the foundation’s vision of teacher effectiveness (a vision that turned out to be an expensive bust that lost funding and was ultimately abandoned by the district).  More importantly, Commissioner Elia is a lifelong educator with thorough knowledge of how complicated the stakeholders in education can be, knowledge that seemed to elude her predecessor whose actual school experience was mostly limited to no excuses charter schools.  Regardless of one’s opinions about Common Core or state testing, Commissioner Elia seemed well positioned to ease tensions in the Empire State.

That was the theory, anyway.

Commissioner Elia began her tenure with a “listening tour” where she visited districts across the state to hear concerns and make the case that the state was heading in the correct direction – even if that direction was causing widespread concerns.  This was meant to distinguish herself from Commissioner John King who was widely regarded as unwilling or unable to listen, and to present herself as an NYSED Commissioner eager to discuss with the public.  One can probably give Commissioner Elia credit for both speaking to the public and for sticking with her belief in the importance of annual testing.  In a talk at Sweet Home Middle School in the Erie County school district where Commissioner Elia began her teaching career, she told attendees that “Life is one big test.  We have go to get to the point where people are at peace with that.”

Commissioner Elia’s tone took a turn by the end of the summer, however, when both she and representatives from the federal DOE discussed the need for plans to reduce opt outs in New York.  The Commissioner probably felt that she would have some support from both Governor Andrew Cuomo and Chancellor of the Board of Regents Merryl Tisch.  After all, Governor Cuomo unleashed a torrent of harsh measures using annual testing in his 2015 budget address, and Chancellor Tisch, speaking to the New York State Council of School Superintendents, compared opting out of state tests with refusing to vaccinate your child.  Commissioner Elia probably felt she had plenty of back up when she followed her conversations with Washington on possible consequences for districts with high opt out numbers with her own opinion that the movement was “not reasonable” and that any educators who supported it were “unethical”.

In short order, however, the Commissioner found herself standing alone with both Chancellor Tisch and Governor Cuomo emphatically denying any plans to threaten school districts with loss of funding if they had high opt out rates.  Commissioner Elia quickly admitted that parents have the right to opt their children out of the state exams, although she also emphasized that she hoped to convince them otherwise.  Governor Cuomo followed this in September by announcing a commission to review the Common Core standards and their implementation in New York.  The Regents, meanwhile, after giving districts more time to work out how to use state tests in teacher evaluation, announced a two year moratorium on the use of the state tests for those evaluations – although local tests will still need to be used.

Then last week, Commissioner Elia announced the latest changes to testing in the Empire State – removal of time limits on the state examinations:

“I heard from parents across this state and from teachers that part of the stresses that we had on our kids was that they were timed, and particularly younger children,” the commissioner said in a question-and-answer period following her testimony on Gov. Cuomo’s $145 billion budget proposal.

“So if they are working productively, then they will be able to continue the assessment in a setting where they can read, comprehend and respond to the questions that correspond,” Elia said of students who will be taking the tests this year.

Interestingly enough, it is possible for standardized tests, especially criterion referenced tests, to be administered without time limits.  After all, if the purpose of a test is to see if a child knows a specific bit of content or skill, the ability to do it in 5 minutes versus 10 minutes is not as significant as actually knowing it.  And I will go out on the limb and simply acknowledge that anything which reduces the likelihood that 8 year olds will vomit and wet themselves during testing is a move in the right direction.  That’s the good news.

On the other hand, one does have to wonder how this move reduces the amount of time consumed by state testing, and the logistic challenges with schools potentially having to proctor students for very various lengths of time will be interesting.  Moreover, will all of these moves by high authorities in Albany – increasing the length of time to modify and implement Common Core Standards, a temporary moratorium on high stakes purposes for the state standardized exams, removing time limits from the exams themselves – do anything to make a dent in the state’s nation leading opt out numbers?  All of these options were available a year ago, but Governor Cuomo and Chancellor Tisch chose to pursue a punishing agenda on teacher and school evaluation, only backing off when the governor’s approval ratings plunged and the scale of test refusal became clear over the summer.  With the federal government strongly urging state education authorities to get a handle on their test refusal situations (or risk sanctions from the USDOE), it seems most likely that all of these moves are designed to keep opt outs from increasing this year and to convince parents who refused the tests last year to come back.  After all, visibly beating up on schools and teachers got them where they are now.  Maybe a velvet glove will help.

Opt Out leaders are not buying it.  Former New York school principal and current director of the Network for Public Education Carol Burris sees Opt Out as permanent fixture in education unless more dramatic changes are made.  According to Ms. Burris, leaders in the movement remain unconvinced and are energized by USDOE moves to convinced states to lower the boom on test refusal:

Jeanette Deutermann, lead of the Long Island, New York Opt Out, agrees. And she is furious with what she sees as the scare tactics being spread by the media based on the threatening letter issued by Acting Secretary of Education John King.

“As opt outs take root in NY and spread across the country, the federal and state governments continue to play a bizarre game of “yes we will, no we won’t” concerning funding threats. This year the threat took a different spin. The Feds gave the states a great little ‘bullying toolkit’ which basically says, ‘these parents aren’t afraid of us. Make sure they’re afraid of YOU.’ They came up short on one key fact: the USDOE and the SED have no authority to strip our schools of funding for a parent-led action. Our schools are in compliance. Our children are administered the test. We, the parents, direct our children not to take it. There is no law or regulation in NY that affords the SED the right to arbitrarily decide to withhold funds from our local districts.”

Other leaders in test refusal agree, citing the efforts from Albany as entirely missing the point of their concerns over the tests and accompanying policies.  President of Community Education Council 31, Michael Reilly, told Chalkbeat: “I think she’s trying to put a bandaid on the issues that parents and educators have raised…This is one attempt to appease parents. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s well thought out.”  Lisa Rudley of New York Allies for Public Education was dismissive and said that Commissioner Elia was still treating the tests as more misunderstood than in need of major changes.  Time, of course, will tell, but New York’s strongest opponents of the current testing environment are thoroughly unconvinced and confident that test refusals will continue.

Maybe next year, Governor Cuomo can propose a new iPhone for every family that opts in.

 

 

cat on leash

NYSED Trying To Convince Opt Out To Just Take The Test Already….

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Filed under Common Core, John King, MaryEllen Elia, NCLB, New York Board of Regents, Opt Out, Testing

Andrew Cuomo and the Difference a Year Makes

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo began 2015 with a hard charge against public schools and public school teachers in particular.  Having called public education a “monopoly”  he wanted to “bust” during his reelection campaign in 2014,  he vetoed a bill his own office had proposed that would have protected teachers and principals from consequences because of low test scores for a two year period, and his office opened a correspondence with Regents Chancellor Dr. Merryl Tisch where they both agreed that it was necessary to change teacher and principal evaluations to greatly increase the portion determined by growth measures on standardized tests.

The Governor came out swinging for New York’s public schools in his 2015 State of the State Address, delivered on January 21st:

Education – the great equalizer. And this is the area, my friends where I think we need to do the most reform and frankly where reform is going to be difficult, given the situation of the way education is funded in this state. Our education system needs dramatic reform and it has for years and I believe this is the year to do it. This is the year to roll up our sleeves and take on the dramatic challenge that has eluded us for so many years for so many reasons.

Governor Cuomo dedicated 2,254 words of his 10, 324 word speech to P-12 education, and he certainly kept his promise to put forth “dramatic reform.”  He attacked the quality of teachers by citing a entry exam that nearly a third of prospective teachers did not pass in the previous year.  He attacked the then existing teacher evaluation system in the state, which he had previously championed, as “baloney” because it rated too many teachers as effective and highly effective.  The Governor justified this by citing that “only” 38% of students were “college ready” and he rattled off other proficiency levels on state exams as more proof that very many more teachers have to be rated ineffective.  In doing so, he failed to mention that the cut scores for “proficient” and “highly proficient” were deliberately pegged by the New York State Education Department to scale scores that only about a third of students were expected to reach.  Despite this, Governor Cuomo took it as a matter of faith that many more teachers deserved to be labeled ineffective, and his proposed teacher evaluation system shifted 50% of teacher evaluations to student growth on standardized exams.  Further, he demanded the use of outside evaluators for teacher observations, and the book that was released with his address specified that those evaluators would count for 35% of teachers’ ratings, leaving local administrators with only 15% of input on their own teachers.  He also called for tenure to be limited to teachers who received 5 consecutive years of effective ratings, and he offered a $20,000 bonus for highly rated teachers.  That was joined by a proposal to allow school districts to get rid of any teacher with two ineffective ratings.

The Governor went on to scoff at the idea of more money helping the schools he labeled as failing, and instead called for any school that is deemed failing for three years to be turned over to another school district, a not-for-profit, or a turn around “expert” and he specifically cited charter schools as part of that effort, calling for statewide cap to be lifted.  Governor Cuomo addressed funding, but largely to hold the state’s school hostage to his reforms: he proposed an increase in funding of 4.8% or $1.1 billion if, and only if, the legislature passed his reforms – otherwise, the increase would top out at 1.7% or $377 million.  Mind you, this is in a state where Albany has continued to use the Gap Elimination Adjustment for years after the economic crisis eased, cutting promised aid from school districts to plug holes in revenue shortfalls for the entire state budget.  This accounting trick has cost New York public schools billions of dollars in promised state aid from an aid budget that itself was short $5.6 billion needed to meet long promised commitments to equity in school funding.

The Governor forcefully went after this agenda, spending copious amounts of political capital and goodwill among the public, and while he did not get everything he wanted, on teacher evaluations, he finally forced state lawmakers to give him precisely what he wanted in order to meet the budget deadline.  By all accounts, Governor Cuomo had won a sweeping change that was bound that transform New York into a cutting edge laboratory in the “test and punish” philosophy of education “improvement”.

What has happened since then has been a lot different.

Over the summer, NYSED’s new Commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, went on a “listening tour” of the state to, in theory, hear concerns of parents and teachers after the rocky tenure of her predecessor Dr. John King, Jr., but she also made her take on high stakes testing apparent by calling life “one big test“.  Commissioner Elia’s “charm” took a different turn when she announced to reporters that her office was in communication with the federal education department over potential consequences for schools and school districts that failed to test 95% of all students.  However, that stance was almost immediately reversed by Regents Chancellor Tisch who declared that Washington was leaving the matter to the state and that the Regents had no intention of withholding funds, and even Governor Cuomo echoed that sentiment, leaving the new Commissioner out on a limb from which she bid a hasty retreat.

Things got even weirder in the Fall when Governor Cuomo, citing widespread dissatisfaction with the implementation of the Common Core State Standards as well as questions about their quality and lack of input from stakeholders, announced a new commission to review the standards, review New York’s curriculum guidance and support, and review the testing environment in the state.  The commission returned in December with a framework of proposals, including pushing full transition of changes to how standards are implemented and teachers are evaluated out to the 2019-2020 school year, although critics remained only cautiously skeptical.

Meanwhile, Regents Chancellor Tisch was seeking wiggle room in the reform environment as well.  As early as April last year, she suggested that school districts would need an additional year to implement the evaluation system passed in the state budget, and in December, the Board of Regents went further by pushing the deadline for using state test scores in teacher evaluation to the 2019-2020 school year as well.  While most districts are still operating under the previous evaluation system where 20% of teacher evaluation is based upon state scores, 20% based upon local measures, and 60% on observations, this move by the Regents means that the portion tied to the contentious state tests needs to be replaced locally – and if implementation of the new evaluation system happens in the following year, towns will still need more local measures since the state tests will not be used in evaluation.  Currently, 83 districts managed to negotiate an approved implementation of the new evaluation system, but they will now need measures other than the state exam.

Governor Cuomo took to the stage again this month to deliver his 2016 State of the State address, and the tone could hardly have been more different.  Last year, more than a fifth of the 10,300 word address was dedicated to his punishing P-12 education agenda.  This year? 364 words.  Out of a 9,683 word speech.  Barely 3.75% of his address.  And what did he offer?

  • He bragged a little bit about reforms that he made no mention of last year – like increasing parental involvement and reducing testing and the Common Core recommendations.
  • An increase of $2.1 billion in funding over 2 years.
  • Using that money to end the Gap Elimination Adjustment.
  • He made a vague call to turn “failing” schools into community schools, and repeated a positive platitude or three about charter schools.
  • Suggested that we can attract and keep the best teachers – by offering a $200 tax credit to cover their out of pocket expense. New York teachers may not have to worry any more about choosing between decorating their classrooms and a visit to the dentist.

This is, shall we say, a far less ambitious and far less confrontational agenda for a Governor whose donor base expects sweeping changes that benefit their interests.  Is there something that might account for such a dramatic change in tone and ambition?

 

Oh, right.

After months of Governor Cuomo’s aggressive charge against New York teachers, and after months of protests across the state, the Common Core aligned state assessments were given and reports of huge opt out numbers came in.  In August, those numbers were confirmed: 20% of New York State students eligible to take the tests, roughly 200,000 in all, refused them. This was huge increase over the previous year, and a majority of New York school districts did not test the 95% of all students required by federal law with a substantial number seeing refusal rates above 50%.  Governor Cuomo, aided by Chancellor Tisch and former NYSED Commissioner John King, managed for foment a full blown parents’ revolt against his education priorities, and everything we’ve seen since the budget bill last April – Commissioner Elia’s threats and rapid retreat, Chancellor Tisch pushing the new evaluation system off for a year, Governor Cuomo’s Common Core and testing commission, the Regents delaying using state test scores in teacher evaluations, Governor Cuomo reducing his own education agenda to “YaddaYaddaYadda – Teachers are swell” – is likely a sustained effort to put out fires and take the urgency out of test refusal.

This being Andrew Cuomo, of course, changes in tone are not necessarily tied to changes in substance.  While state tests may be on hold for teacher evaluations until 2019-2020, that merely represents a delay, and districts will still have to use some kind of test data for 50% of teacher evaluations when the new teacher evaluations actually get started next year. Assemblyman Charles Barron correctly points out that Governor Cuomo’s promised increase in school funding is more spin than substance, amounting to barely a portion of what the state still owes school districts under agreements made long ago.  In fact, the governor’s proposal would use much of that increase to stop hacking away at promised, inadequate, aid via the Gap Elimination Adjustment, which is a bit like asking school districts to be happy that they will only be starved rather than starved and punched.  Finally, nobody should forget how Governor Cuomo made a long list of promises to secure the endorsement of The Working Families Party and head off a challenge from his left in 2014 – only to give the progressive party the royal shaft.

Andrew Cuomo wants New York’s families and teachers to believe he is a changed and humbled man.  History suggests it is a scam.

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Filed under Common Core, Funding, John King, MaryEllen Elia, New York Board of Regents, Opt Out, politics, Testing

Chris Christie Calls Mandatory Recess Bill “Stupid”

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took time out of his busy schedule as a failing Presidential candidate this week to veto a bill that would have mandated 20 minutes of recess for all New Jersey schoolchildren between Kindergarten and 5th grade.  Speaking with Fox News, the Governor said that “part of my job as governor is to veto the stupid bills. That was a stupid bill and I vetoed it.”  He also characterized the bill as “crazy government run amok” and mischaracterized it as requiring outdoor recess regardless of the weather conditions; the actual language of the bill expressed a preference for outdoor recess when possible.  Governor Christie further berated the legislators who passed the bill by saying, “With all the other problems we have to deal with, my Legislature is worried about recess for kids from kindergarten to fifth grade?”

I think we need to clarify some points:

Collaborating with private donors to transform the city of Newark’s school system in an unproven experiment, turning the city schools over to an inept and defensive administrator who planned to close schools that were meeting their improvement goals and sending families across the city whether they wanted to go or not?  That is not “crazy government run amok”.

A $108 MILLION contract with the Pearson Corporation to provide an unproven and disruptive state assessment system whose results were thoroughly misrepresented by the state’s highest education appointee?  That is not “crazy government run amok”.

Granting a “graduate school of education” that is primarily a collaboration of charter school networks training their own teachers in the “no excuses” methods the sole contract to provide continuing education for teachers in the state’s largest city while increasing the requirements for traditional teacher preparation programs?  That is not “crazy government run amok”.

Ramming through a major overhaul of the state’s pension fund, refusing to actually pay the state’s agreed upon contribution, but giving management of those funds to politically connected Wall Street firms who jacked up the fees to over $600 million a YEAR?  That is not “crazy government run amok”.

“Crazy government run amok” is making certain that state education law requires that very young children get a daily chance to play outside while they are in school.

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Governor Christie’s mocking of the legislature for spending time on something so frivolous is also sorely misplaced.  Far from being unimportant, the American Academy of Pediatrics has called recess “crucial” and cites tangible benefits of regularly scheduled play for children attending school:

Just as physical education and physical fitness have well-recognized benefits for personal and academic performance, recess offers its own, unique benefits. Recess represents an essential, planned respite from rigorous cognitive tasks. It affords a time to rest, play, imagine, think, move, and socialize. After recess, for children or after a corresponding break time for adolescents, students are more attentive and better able to perform cognitively. In addition, recess helps young children to develop social skills that are otherwise not acquired in the more structured classroom environment.

Restrictions or even loss of recess time is a national phenomenon, and the New Jersey law would have protected students from districts who felt the pressure to spend more time on academics and test preparation from stealing that time from recess — and yes, this has happened in New Jersey.  Far from being something that the state’s lawmakers should not have bothered with, protecting children from well-intentioned but ultimately damaging policies is absolutely something that needed to be done.  Mounting evidence suggests that this generation of schoolchildren are being pushed into more and more academic focus at younger and younger ages to their detriment. Even children as young as Pre-Kindergarten are losing play based learning that is developmentally appropriate and actually crucial to their long term social and academic well-being.  Writing in The Atlantic, Erika Chistakis notes:

Preschool classrooms have become increasingly fraught spaces, with teachers cajoling their charges to finish their “work” before they can go play. And yet, even as preschoolers are learning more pre-academic skills at earlier ages, I’ve heard many teachers say that they seem somehow—is it possible?—less inquisitive and less engaged than the kids of earlier generations. More children today seem to lack the language skills needed to retell a simple story or to use basic connecting words and prepositions. They can’t make a conceptual analogy between, say, the veins on a leaf and the veins in their own hands.

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

That’s right. The same educational policies that are pushing academic goals down to ever earlier levels seem to be contributing to—while at the same time obscuring—the fact that young children are gaining fewer skills, not more.

This isn’t complicated.  This isn’t disputable.  Children need play.  Very young children cannot learn without opportunities to play.  The only flaw with the New Jersey legislation Governor Christie vetoed is that it doesn’t go far enough to protect our youngest school children from misguided efforts to increase their academic “performance” by denying them what they need to thrive.  Our children need recess.  They also need more play oriented learning premised on discovery and social interaction, and they need far less emphasis on tasks that look “rigorous” to adults but which stifle their development and steal time from genuine learning.

Governor Christie isn’t merely wrong; he is cruelly wrong.  The “stupid” thing is the steady chipping away of what our children need.  Perhaps the Governor could remember that as he is trying to score points with primary voters who are not interested in his candidacy.

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Filed under Cami Anderson, child development, Chris Christie, classrooms, Cory Booker, Newark, One Newark, PARCC, Pearson, politics, Testing

Hillary Clinton and the School Accountability “Conversation”

When you are a leading candidate for the Presidency of the United States, slight turns of phrase carry more weight than they do for ordinary citizens.  Former Senator and Secretary of State and front runner for the Democratic Party nomination for President Hillary Clinton is no exception.  For example, charter school advocates took multiple turns on the fainting couch when Secretary Clinton made the entirely accurate observation that many of our “high flying” charter schools do not have the same student characteristics as district schools.  For a candidate who has deep and lasting ties to organizations favoring today’s education reform and personal connections to figures like Eli Broad who are advancing plans to rapidly and massively increase charter schools, it was quite an observation which did not go unnoticed by charter advocates – or by supporters of public education.

More recently, Secretary Clinton gave public education advocates pause when, on the campaign trail in Iowa and in the midst of a larger talk about schools, she said,  “Now, I wouldn’t keep any school open that wasn’t doing a better-than-average job. If a school’s not doing a good job, then, you know, that may not be good for the kids.”

Her comment set off a flurry of responses, mostly negative, from numerous sources for several reasons.  First, the question of schools doing “better than average” raised eyebrows as determining average performance means adding all schools’ together and then dividing the by the number of schools — in the case of K-12 public education, that’s well over 98,000 schools, a substantial portion of which would have to be “below average” because that’s how math works. Some have posed that her comment meant half of all schools would be open to being closed, but that would only be fully true if the target was “median.” Further, no matter how well schools do, there will, by definition, always be those who are “below average.”  Conceptually, it is entirely possible for every school in the country to be doing exceptionally well for all children, and there were still be schools that are below the average.

Also of concern is the implication that schools should be closed, which is one of the central tools of today’s education reform that seeks to label, pressure, and ultimately close schools using standardized test based metrics.  Secretary Clinton almost casually mentioned one of the core aspects of education reform as practiced in the United States,  indicative of how normalized the concept is even with the growing understanding that market disruption in education ends up hurting the children it claims to help, especially black and Latino children who bear the brunt of school closure as policy.  While the federal government has only a peripheral role in policy choices like this, it has played a significant role in encouraging, incentivizing, and funding the expansion of charter schools which can establish themselves in closed schools.  Secretary Clinton’s remarks carried the specter of this continuing during a Clinton administration.

So it is hardly surprising that her campaign was treated to swift and pointed remarks:

First, the good news:  The context of Secretary Clinton’s remarks were in a talk about supporting public schools in Iowa, specifically schools widely regarded as doing a good job but in danger because of Iowa’s particular budgeting laws.  Senior Spokesperson Jesse Ferguson explained that Secretary Clinton was speaking against Iowa’s Governor starving rural school districts with shrinking tax bases and that her career was “a commitment to fixing struggling schools, not shutting them down.”  It is undeniable that her short comment about “below average” schools came in the context of remarks that were broadly supportive of public schools struggling in the face of policies that unfairly deny them necessary resources:

And so for the life of me, I don’t understand why your state government — and I know Governor Brandstad vetoed the money that would’ve come to help this school, and it was a bipartisan agreement. Y’know those are hard to come by these days. You had a bipartisan agreement in your legislature for more one-time student funding to help deal with some of the financial challenges that districts like this one have.

And Governor Brandstad vetoed it. Yet at the same time you have these laws which require if you have a deficit you may not be able to be a school district. It doesn’t make sense to me. When you- When you- Something is not broke, don’t break it. Right?

And this school district and these schools throughout Iowa are doing a better-than-average job. Now, I wouldn’t keep any school open that wasn’t doing a better-than-average job.  If a school’s not doing a good job, then, y’know, that may not be good for the kids. But when you have a district that is doing a good job, it seems kinda counterproductive to impose financial burdens on it.

The full talk is longer than an hour if even more context is needed:

For the sake of argument, I can also accept that “below average” was meant as a clumsy proxy for “not good.”  That’s an acceptable colloquial use, and I do not personally believe that Secretary Clinton would mean below the mathematical definition of average; she’s far too intelligent to not know what it means.  Secretary Clinton absolutely did not mean that we should seek to close nearly half the schools in the country, as was almost gleefully reported in a variety of right wing media outlets (who in their normal daily business, it should be noted for irony’s sake, are all too happy to bash public schools full of unionized teachers).

Of course, there is also bad news.  Peter Greene of Curmudgucation very astutely observed that the context does not exactly absolve Secretary Clinton:

Clinton used “below average” as shorthand for low-performing, which indicates a lack of understanding of exactly how schools end up tagged low-performing, and how the stack ranking of schools is pernicious, inaccurate, and guaranteed to always result in schools labeled low-performing (and for that matter, what “below average” really means). The use of false, inaccurate and just-plain-crappy measures to label schools and teachers as successes or failures is central to what’s going on in education reform. If she doesn’t understand that, she doesn’t understand some of the most fundamental problems we’re facing.

Clinton’s glib use of “wouldn’t keep any school open” shows a limited understanding of just what is involved in “closing” a school. What happens to staff? What happens to students? What happens to the community? Clinton shows no awareness of how huge a task she’s glibly suggesting, nor does she suggest that there are other options that should be considered long before this nuclear option, which should be at the bottom of the list.

This is essentially correct in my opinion, and, as mentioned above, it indicates just how normalized the current language of accountability and threats to schools is without our political landscape.  Schools are measured as successes and failures using distant measurements that are absent any locally understood input, and then they are threatened until those measures rise – or the school is closed and frequently turned over to a private operator with absolutely no accountability to local democratic institutions.  Secretary Clinton may have been, to her credit, talking about the insanity of a state government financially starving local schools, but she signaled that the essential framework of No Child Left Behind is still alive and well in our political discourse.  Given that the new Every Student Succeeds Acts simultaneously maintains annual testing and leaves significant aspects of using that data in school accountability to the states, the tone from Washington will still matter for how the states pursue the law’s requirements.

This reflects a lasting concern among scholars and advocates for public education that in the 32 years since A Nation At Risk was published and in the almost 15 years since No Child Left Behind was enacted, the call for accountability in our education system has been entirely unidirectional – with schools and teachers called upon to lift students and communities from poverty and inequality while the rest of society is called upon to do exactly nothing.  David Berliner wrote about this issue a decade ago as NCLB was coming into full force:

All I am saying in this essay is that I am tired of acting like the schools, all alone, can do what is needed to help more people achieve higher levels of academic performance in our society. As Jean Anyon (1997, p. 168) put it “Attempting to fix inner city schools without fixing the city in which they are embedded is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door.”

To clean the air on both sides of the screen door we need to begin thinking about building a two-way system of accountability for contemporary America. The obligation that we educators have accepted to be accountable to our communities must become reciprocal. Our communities must also be accountable to those of us who work in the schools, and they can do this by creating social conditions for our nation that allow us to do our jobs well. Accountability is a two way process, it requires a principal and an agent. For too long schools have thought of themselves only as agents who must meet the demands of the principal, often the local community, state, or federal government. It is time for principals (and other school leaders) to become principals. That is, school people need to see communities as agents as well as principals and hold communities to standards that insure all our children are accorded the opportunities necessary for growing well.

It does take a whole village to raise a child, and we actually know a little bit about how to do that. What we seem not to know how to do in modern America is to raise the village, to promote communal values that insure that all our children will prosper. We need to face the fact that our whole society needs to be held as accountable for providing healthy children ready to learn, as our schools are for delivering quality instruction. One-way accountability, where we are always blaming the schools for the faults that we find, is neither just, nor likely to solve the problems we want to address.

The severity of this problem in many of our communities cannot be overstated.  Consider Whitney Elementary School in Las Vegas, Nevada.  According to the Nevada DOE, Whitney is a “two star” school out of a possible five stars with only 40 points out of 100 on the state’s accountability scale in the academic year ending in 2012.  Data for subgroups, such as children qualifying for free and reduced price lunch, children with disabilities, and children who are learning English, show lower performance at Whitney than for similar children statewide, and Whitney’s overall test based performance and growth measured by tests is much lower than state averages.

Using these external measures we would have to concede that Whitney Elementary is “below average” for academics both in the mathematical sense and in the colloquial sense.  Is that the bottom line, however?  Is this a school that, in Secretary Clinton’s words, “may not be good for the kids”?

I ask because I learned about this school via a story on Public Radio International’s The Takeaway, where co-host Celeste Headlee investigated the trying circumstances of America’s working poor and homeless families in the run up to the 2012 election.  Her reporting took her to Las Vegas to a family whose children attend Whitney.  I recommend reading this transcript with a box of tissues nearby:

Headlee: Rick’s kids go to the Whitney School where half of the kids are homeless.  At the Whitney, the school provides meals not just for the school day but for the weekend as well.  Kim Butterfield is a teaching assistant at Whitney.  She says her students are clearly hungry and desperate.

Butterfield: I work in the cafeteria for lunch duty, and a lot of times I would see children putting ketchup packets in their pockets, lots of them, to take home for – what they do is put a little water in them to make ketchup soup.  And just noticing the kids were very hungry, all the time.

Headlee: Without those free school meals many of these kids would not have anything to eat.  Instead of talking about TV shows or music or Facebook, these kids talk about food and how it feels to be hungry.

Child: We don’t have any dinner at home. It’s already happened five times.

Headlee: How does that feel?

Child: Well, it felt kind of weird because it felt like I was kind of getting dizzy one time.

Headlee: And like Rick’s kids, the rest of the students at the Whitney also worry about their families. Eight year old Steven says he tries hard in class, but he can’t stop thinking about his pregnant mother.

Steven:  We don’t have enough money to get the food for the baby. I feel really sad for it, so that’s why mother thinks we’re going to give it to adoption.  But I’m not sure if it costs money and the good thing about it is my mother gets to choose who it is.

Headlee: Another student, Leslie, is six but without the bubbling energy we often associate with first graders. In hushed tones, Leslie describes  what appeared on her dinner table one night.

Leslie (whispering): My mom ate rats.

Headlee: Eating rats? Is that something that happens – a lot or it happened just once?

Leslie: Once.

Headlee: Once.  Was that because she ran out of food?  Yeah. How did that make you feel?

Leslie: Sad.

 

Sherrie Gahn, Principal at Whitney, explained what occupies her students’ minds that distracts from their academics:  “The dream here is that these children will be on the same level playing field as any other child in America. We know that doesn’t happen because they are in such survival mode and they can’t possibly learn because they are not thinking about learning. They are thinking about their shoes hurting or where they are going to go to sleep at night or if they are going to have a place to sleep at night or their tummies are grumbling.”

Let’s be frank:  Whitney is obviously an extreme example of the kinds of schools where students come from struggling families and communities.  However, because of our outsized child poverty rate where 45% of children live in families that are either in or near poverty and because of our high rates of income segregation, there are a staggering number of schools classified as “high poverty” by the federal government, meaning that more than 75% of students are eligible for the free and reduced price lunch program.  In the 2007-2008 school year, there were 16,122 such public elementary and secondary schools in America, 18% of all public K-12 public schools.  While the children at Whitney are in exceptionally dire straights, there many thousands of schools whose students’ families are only a few paychecks from joining them.

With that in mind, I dare anyone to look at a school that is literally all that is standing between its children and daily hunger and call it a failure – or even “below average”.  Go on.  Try.

Berliner’s concept of “two-way accountability” is absolutely essential here.  The teachers and administrators at most of our most poverty stricken schools want what is best for their children.  But for decades, they have labored in a policy environment that demands that they lift those children from poverty while the rest of society accepts zero responsibility for the policies that have ravaged their communities.  Our child poverty rate is not natural law.  In many ways it is a choice that could be addressed by policy as other nations have done.

If Secretary Clinton wants to talk about education in terms that evoke accountability, I challenge her to only do so when similarly challenging our society and our economy to be equally accountable for opportunity and for providing the resources needed for equitable opportunity to become our norm.  I challenge her to talk about fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.  I challenge her to talk about the estimated $197 billion in capital improvements needed in our school facilities just to get all schools to “good” condition.  I challenge her to call for full wrap around services in all “high poverty” schools and to increase Title I funding available to schools serving poor children in general.  In short, I challenge her to change the conversation on accountability to one reflected in the title of her 1996 book, It Takes a Village.

She was right on that.  She should take up that challenge now.

 

 

 

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Filed under Data, ESSA, Funding, Hillary Clinton, Media, NCLB, politics, Social Justice