Orwell Weeps

August 23, 2014 Leave a comment

Here’s the title of a blog post from Beta Beat that requires no further comment:

University Bans Social Media, Political Content and Wikipedia Pages on Dorm Wifi

Oh… and it’s not a private religiously affiliated university, which arguably COULD get away with restricting the freedom of speech of its students… but state funded Northern Illinois.

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This Just In: Salesman Try to Be Your Friend

August 23, 2014 Leave a comment

Sometimes I think people look too hard for conspiracies. Diane Ravitch’s recent blog post on LAUSD is a case in point. Titled “Breaking News: LA Officials Met with Apple, Pearson a Year Before Taking Bids”, the post insinuates that these meetings constitute evidence of collusion. I’m not sure at all. A more likely explanation is that LAUSD was doing due diligence. Here’s my comment on the post:

This is NOT intended to defend LAUSD because I do not know the extent to which they wrote their bids to proscribe other offers… but… as a Superintendent who was interested in integrating technology into the schools my staff and I often met with software and hardware vendors to gain a better understanding of their products and to gain a better understanding of what was possible… When we chose to specify Apple operating systems over DOS (an unpopular decision in an IBM town) it was because we determined that there was more application software available… when we explored data warehousing we met with a vendor who was connected with a college professor I knew and learned a great deal about what was feasible at that time and what we could incorporate into a bid specification… A prudent administrative team will take a lot of time deliberating on what kind of hardware and software they need for a school system before committing resources. It’s POSSIBLE that LAUSD administrators were doing due diligence in convening extended meetings with Apple and Pearson… and those letters from Pearson are unsurprising and, from my perspective, unpersuasive “evidence” of collusion. Education salespersons use the same approach and same language as every good salesperson: they want to strike up a personal relationship with the purchaser and enter into a “partnership”… Have you looked at buying a car lately? You’ll get the same kind of email from a car salesman.

When I was superintendent in NYS there was an audience member who had his own public access TV show and who was convinced that every action we took as administrators was somehow part of a shady deal and/or part of our effort to promote “constructivist” education theories. His show was creepy. It included grainy footage of my home and the church I attended where he thought folks should picket to protest whatever scheme he imagined I was involved with. He would receive copies of our board packets and highlight memos flagging evidence of administrative misconduct. While no one ever picketed my home or my church and no one gave much credence to his rants and analyses, the show did make me look at all allegations of administrative misbehavior with a more jaundiced eye. It’s possible the LAUSD administrators engaged in misconduct— but it’s more plausible that he and his staff were doing their due diligence in gaining an understanding of the best way to match their technology purchases with their education needs…. and from Deasy’s perspective having a robust technology-based standardized testing program is an “education need”.

No More Guns Needed in Schools

August 23, 2014 Leave a comment

I read an op ed piece by Michael Wines and Frances Robles in today’s NYTimes titled “Key Factor in Police Shootings: “Reasonable Fear” and had a flashback to situations I faced as a teacher at Shaw Junior High School in Philadelphia, as an Assistant Principal at Darby Colwyn HS, and as a Principal in Bethel ME.

As a teacher I was once sucker-punched by a student while I was on hallway duty outside my classroom during the passing of classes. His defense was that he “thought I was another teacher”. For several weeks after that I was increasingly wary of students as they walked through the corridors between classes. Were THEY going to punch me? As a teacher I also intervened in confrontations between students in the hallways or in the Boys Room I patrolled across the hall from my classroom. Were these typical middle school  “woofing” exchanges or gang fights that spilled into the school? Would I be able to de-escalate the tension or find myself physically separating the students?

As an assistant Principal my greatest fears came from checking into reports that some of the “sports fans” from a rival HS were armed with baseball bats, knives, and maybe even handguns as they waited in the parking lot for the game to end. But in the life of an assistant principal in a lower middle class demographic there were several instances over the course of the three years when I had to break up fights, confront “visitors” to the campus who “needed to talk” with a student who we suspected was dealing drugs, and deal with students whose anger at their lot in life was directed at authority figures and who made impulsive threats that may— or may not— have been groundless.

As Principal and disciplinarian in rural ME there were fewer times when I felt directly threatened by students, but the fights between adolescents and the confrontations with campus “visitors” always led to the kind of adrenaline surge that results from the sense of personal danger.

In short, as I read the opening paragraphs Wines’ and Robles’ essay I recalled the many times I experienced “reasonable fear” as an educator and after reading the article wrote this comment:

As a former school administrator I get a knot in my stomach every time I read an article advocating that we arm teachers and administrators. There are many times when a teacher of administrator encounters a situation where they sensed they or someone else was “…in imminent danger of grievous injury or death”. In those instances, if the teachers were armed, they may feel they could “…shoot first and ask questions later.” Too often, confrontations in schools are the kind of “fast-paced, low-information” situations where researchers find the risks and potential consequences of a mistake are very high. I hope these recent shootings by trained policeman in MO underscore the flaw in the “good guys with guns” theory that is the basis for arming educators and the basis for “stand your ground” laws.

Police are trained to deal with adrenaline rushes and with handling a weapon. I imagine they go into every situation with the same feeling I had weeks after I was punched by a student passing by me in the hallway… or when I heard that a fight was underway or brewing… or when I heard that an unauthorized “visitor” was on campus. I do not envy the work they do, but I don’t dot believe we need more guns in the hands of those who are responsible for order in schools… we need to deal with the root causes of school violence. Spending money on social services is far more helpful than spending money to provide “good guys with guns” in every school.

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America in Decay?

August 22, 2014 Leave a comment

I recently subscribed to Pieria, a weekly digest of thought provoking articles that I learned about from a Naked Capitalism link and every week there is at least one thought provoking article that deals directly or indirectly with public education policy. “America in Decay” by Francis Fukuyama’s lengthy Foreign Affairs article (it took me 45 minutes to read it) was this week’s mind opener. Fukuyama’s basic premise is summarized in this paragraph near the end of the article:

Today, once again, the United States is trapped by its political institutions. Because Americans distrust government, they are generally unwilling to delegate to it the authority to make decisions, as happens in other democracies. Instead, Congress mandates complex rules that reduce the government’s autonomy and cause decision-making to be slow and expensive. The government then doesn’t perform well, which confirms people’s lack of trust in it. Under these circumstances, they are reluctant to pay higher taxes, which they feel the government will simply waste. But without appropriate -resources, the government can’t function properly, again creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Earlier, Fukuyama describes how the stability of our political institutions contributes to this dysfunctional vicious circle:

The very stability of institutions, however, is also the source of political decay. Institutions are created to meet the demands of specific circumstances, but then circumstances change and institutions fail to adapt. One reason is cognitive: people develop mental models of how the world works and tend to stick to them, even in the face of contradictory evidence. Another reason is group interest: institutions create favored classes of insiders who develop a stake in the status quo and resist pressures to reform.

These two paragraphs describe the situation in public education, where “decay” is arguably occurring at a more rapid rate than in our state and federal governments.

As noted in the first paragraph, politicians– from federal and state legislators to local school board members– are generally unwilling to delegate decision making authority to the executives charged with operating the schools and thus create “complex rules”— in the forms of legislation and board policy— that result in slow and costly decision-making. This leads to the situation where business minded “reformers”– who are accustomed to operating in a non-democratic setting, want to take over the operation of schools to get something accomplished. This desire for “reformers” to take over is enhanced by the promise of lowering costs (and therefore the taxes that increase the operating costs of their  businesses), in some cases, by the promise of providing a profit-making opportunity.

The second paragraph describes a more complicated fact: public education HAS failed to adapt to the changing circumstances and, as the overarching theme of this blog suggests, it’s primarily because we are stuck with the factory school mental model that has not worked in today’s world though it MAY have served its purpose in the early 1900s…. and the “…favored class of insiders” (e.g. teachers, colleges, and parents of high-performing students) with “…a stake in the status quo” are also resistant to change.  What happens if these sclerotic institutions DON’T change? Here’s Fukuyama’s concluding paragraph:

The depressing bottom line is that given how self-reinforcing the country’s political malaise is, and how unlikely the prospects for constructive incremental reform are, the decay of American politics will probably continue until some external shock comes along to catalyze a true reform coalition and galvanize it into action.

Stay tuned!

Arne Sees The Light?

August 22, 2014 Leave a comment

“States Given and Reprieve on Testing”, Mokoto Rich’s article in yesterday’s NYTimes, reports on Arne Duncan’s announcement that states could wait another year before using test results as the basis for teacher evaluations. Like most reports in the mainstream media, Rich gets the sequence of events backwards:

Over the past four years, close to 40 states have adopted laws that tie teacher evaluations in part to the performance of their students on standardized tests. Many districts have said they will use these performance reviews to decide how teachers are granted tenure, promoted or fired. These laws were adopted in response to conditions set by the Education Department in the waivers it granted from the No Child Left Behind law, which governs what states must do to receive federal education dollars. The test-based teacher evaluations were also included as conditions of Race to the Top grants that have been given to states by the Obama administration. 

The lead sentence of this paragraph implies that the adoption of these laws was motivated by a grassroots came from the STATES. This is clearly NOT the case. The last sentence of the paragraph describes the real motivation: this linkage was mandated by Race to the Top.

While some may think that the pushback from local school boards and teachers might have caused this reconsideration, I think the real motivation for the delay can be found here:

Even those who originally pushed for the adoption of teacher ratings based on test scores have advocated a slower timetable. In June, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the country’s largest donors to education causescalled for a two-year moratorium on states or districts making any personnel decisions based on tests aligned to the Common Core.

If Fairtest, the NEA, the AFT, and scores of education researchers claim VAM are flawed they are dismissed as naysayers…. Bill Gates’ voice, on the other hand, is respectfully heeded.

I am not surprised that Bill Gates is backing off on the timetable. I think at his core Bill Gates is an engineer and as such will ultimately be persuaded by evidence. The notion that standardized tests could serve as a proxy for school and teacher quality makes sense intuitively and is especially appealing to those who seek a means of making schools more focussed (i.e. more efficient). The appeal is even greater to politicians and businesspeople who want to believe there is a cheap, easy, and fast way to “fix” public schools— one that won’t require more spending or more taxes. HOPEFULLY, the Obama administrations complete embrace of test-driven schooling will disabuse the public of these agreeable fantasies.

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The Public is Catching On

August 22, 2014 Leave a comment

Two recent articles about charter schools from opposite ends of the political spectrum, one from Alternet and one from the NY Daily News provide evidence that the American public is beginning to see the flaws with unregulated privatized education.

The Alternet post, “FBI Raids on Charter School Operators Jump”, describes how money has been drained from regulated public non-profit schools to deregulated private for-profit schools and… SURPRISE… unscrupulous behavior has increased among the operators of these institutions!

“How Does She Do It” The NY Daily News op ed piece by Robert Pondiscio, is even more heartening to those of us who have been frustrated by the breathless coverage of “miracle schools” operated by Eva Moskovitz. In the essay Pondiscio reveals some of the statistical shenanigans Moskovitz has played in order to get the incredible results she reports. How does Success Academy do it? They have incredibly high attrition rates between 3rd grade and 8th grade and the kids leaving school are special education students and those who do poorly on the test-prep curriculum. As Diane Ravitch wrote in in post that had the link to the Daily News piece, these children aren’t “left behind”, they are “kicked to the side of the road”. 

Slowly but surely the flaws of deregulation and privatization are seeping into our consciousness….

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NCLB: Mission Accomplished

August 21, 2014 Leave a comment

When NCLB passed, I remember reading what I thought at the time was an especially cynical column suggesting that the intent of the bill from the conservative perspective was to undermine the public’s support for public education by devising a rating system that would demonstrate how poorly American schools were doing. I thought that was cynical until I saw the rating system itself, which WAS clearly designed to make virtually all schools by defining a school as “failing” if it failed to meet unrealistically high growth goals for any sub-group of students. Thus, a high performing school that had a single grade level cohort of, say, 10 special education students who failed to “grow” as measured by standardized test results was deemed to be a “failing” school. It was no surprise, then, that as time went on more and more schools were defined as “failing”, and it was even less of a surprise that public education critics used these results to repeatedly bludgeon public schools… and not at all surprising to see that while NCLB has not resulted in ANY substantial improvement in NAEP scores it has succeeded in one are: the erosion of public support for schools.

Diane Ravitch’s post on the Phi Delta Kappa annual poll on public education included these tidbits:

Local public schools get high marks from public school parents at the same time that American public education gets low marks. This seeming paradox shows the success of the privatizers’ relentless attacks on public education over the past decade. For years, the public has heard Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, Jeb Bush, and other supporters of privatization decry American public education as “broken,” “obsolete,” “failing.” Their message has gotten through. Only 17% of the public gives American education an A or a B.

At the same time, however, 67% of public school parents give an A or B to the public school their oldest child attends.

The parents have always given higher grades to their schools than the general public, but the erosion of support from the general public was made clear after I googled PDK surveys and found an article from the North Carolina DOE providing an overview of the results of the 2000 survey, the las survey before the advent of NCLB. Here are it’s findings on public support for schools:

Public support for public schools is at an all-time high. For the first time in the 33-year history of the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll, a majority of respondents gave their schools either an A or B. Fifty-one percent of all those surveyed rated their schools an A or B with the figure climbing to 62 percent for public school parents and to 68 percent when these same parents were asked to grade the school their oldest child attends. On the 2000 Carolina Poll, 52 percent of North Carolinians said they would give the public schools in their communities a grade of A or B.

To drive the point home: there has been NO change whatsoever in terms of parent’s assessments of their child’s school but a precipitous decline in terms of the public’s assessment of public education. The cynics were right: Edward Kennedy and the Democrats who signed on to NCLB were duped and the public’s support for “government schools” is at an all time low 13 years after it was at an all time high…. and nothing’s changed in terms of the results. Mission accomplished.

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