What Could Replace Standardized Tests as A Metric?

January 27, 2015 Leave a comment

Several years ago (over 35 to be more precise), I recall pondering to move as I sought a new job in a larger school district. To help us decide where we might want to move, my wife and I had purchased  Places Rated Almanac which complied reams of data sets to help families like ours decide where we might want to move. As I recall, the data sets included items like housing costs, availability of transportation, recreation alternatives, medical services, weather, taxes… and schools. The metrics used to assign “stars” for each of the data sets had some flaws (e.g. recreation included the number of golf courses and bowling alleys, neither of which interested me) but the one I found most frustrating was the data set for schools. The ratings used some combination of per pupil spending, class size, and standardized achievement tests to evaluate “quality” and they were particularly inadequate in metropolitan areas like Hartford CT where the city school indices were blended with the nearby suburban districts… and I knew from my experiences in the Philadelphia area that there were VAST differences between the city schools and suburban schools and among the suburban school districts as well.

It is therefore not surprising that after relocating to Western MD in the late 1980s I was enthusiastic about the State Department of Education’s notion of developing “Report Cards” for each school as part of an accountability initiative and I welcomed the opportunity to participate in the development process as one of the 24 Superintendents in the State. Under the leadership of State Superintendent Nancy Grasmick we developed a Report Card that included standardized test scores, drop out rates, attendance, and a host of demographic data that included race, socio-economics, special education, and ESL. As the report cards evolved we worked to upgrade the Report Cards. We changed the test data reported, moving away from the use of minimum competency tests to the “Maryland School Performance Assessment Plan” (MSPAP) assessments that were administered in grades 5, 8 and 11. We made certain we all used a common methodology for defining “drop outs”.  We reported the data in a disaggregated format to make certain that high-performing students in affluent schools were not masking the deficiencies of, say, special education students in less affluent schools. The MSPAP Report card was far superior to the blunt measurements used by Places Rated but still fell short of capturing the elusive qualities the separate a “good” school from an “excellent” school.

I was saddened when I learned that Maryland had to abandon its tests with the advent of NCLB because they were not given at the end of each grade and they also needed to abandon the format of the Report Card. Standardized Test data became the primary metric for determining school quality. Race To The Top, as noted repeatedly in this blog, only made matters worse by raising the stakes of standardized test results thereby making them the de facto exclusive metric for school quality. Ironically, the depth of the data available to parents in the age of the internet was more school specific than the Places Rated data, but it was far less helpful to parents and far more punitive to schools.

But, as Anna Kamenetz reported in an NPR post earlier this month, the reauthorization of NCLB may result in the use of a different set of accountability metrics. In “What Schools Could Use Instead of Standardized Tests” Kamenetz offers a long list of possibilities:

  • Samplingwhere tests like NAEP would examine random samples of students in a school instead of stopping everything to administer tests to all students simultaneously.
  • “Stealth testing”, which suggests formative assessments like NWEA or Khan Academy dashboards could be used to systematically determine individual student progress
  • Multiple Measures, where routinely collected data, like “…graduation rates, discipline outcomes, demographic information, teacher-created assessments and, eventually, workforce outcomes” could be used to measure a school district’s effectiveness. Kamenetz also suggests that emerging metrics like social/emotional skills surveys, game-based assessments, and portfolios could be included in the “multiple measures” provided to students and/or their parents.
  • Inspections, conducted by well-funded state departments of education.

Kamenetz has written a book on this topic, which provides a more expansive description of each of these ideas and offers others…. and anyone who thinks this is “unaffordable” should look at how much we are spending on standardized tests. The billions spent on those tests could easily be redirected to the metrics described above… and the results described above would be far more beneficial to teachers, parents, and students than the results we are getting today.


The Golden Arches Come to Public Education

January 27, 2015 Leave a comment

NPR’s Anna Kamenetz recently gave a report on a study completed by NOLA school choice by the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans suggesting that parent choice doesn’t always play out the way “free market” advocates think it will. Choice advocates believe that breaking the monopoly on public schools will create a competitive environment whereby parents will opt into schools that have better academic performance. This will create a virtuous circle where poor performing schools are driven out and only high performing schools remain.

From the outset I found this notion to be preposterous. If the free market worked in the fashion envisioned by “choice” advocates the Bronx would be full of grocery stores that offer the same items as those found in Bronxville and have sidewalk cafes comparable to those found in, say, Park Slope. Those advocating deregulated charter schools conveniently overlook the fact that poor neighborhoods and communities do not have car dealerships, department stores, boutiques, or hospitals that provide the wide array of consumer goods and services that are routinely available in the more affluent suburbs. The free market does not guarantee quality or equity for groceries, restaurants, consumer goods, or medical services… yet charter advocates seem to think it will provide “quality education” to economically disadvantaged children. After nearly a decade of nearly universal choice in NOLA (86% of the children do NOT attend their neighborhood school) here’s what the research found:

Parents, especially low-income parents, actually show strong preferences for other qualities like location and extracurriculars — preferences that can outweigh academics.

And what are the factors that parents value?

The study split families up into thirds based on the median income in their census tract. What they found was that the lowest-income New Orleans families were even more likely to pick schools that were close by, that offered extended days, and that had football and band in high school — and, conversely, they had a weaker preference for schools based on test scores.

This last point is crucial because it suggests that a choice-based system all by itself won’t necessarily increase equity… These parents appear to be more interested in factors other than academic quality as the state defines it. Maybe they have access to different, or less, information. If this is true, choice could actually increase, rather than diminish, achievement gaps within a city.

Based on my experience this is not at all surprising. The proximity means greater convenience and less of a “hassle cost”. What parent wants to put their child on a bus or drive them across town when the nearby school is comparable. The extended days provide working parents with child care for their elementary children. And good “football and band programs” are far more important to loosely engaged parents than “test scores”. Finally, parents are wise to the fact that test scores are not a reliable proxy for “quality” despite what politicians, economists, psycho-metricians, and privatizers believe. Informed parents, like informed travelers, rely less and less on metrics conceived by organization like AAA or Mobil Travel Guides and more and more on word-of-mouth reviews found in Trip Advisor.

There IS a lesson in all of this for public schools: instead of introducing “choice” they might provide all schools with after school programs and a robust extra-curricular program. Parents could opt out of the extended day if they wished to provide their children with less structured activities or activities different from those offered by the schools and extra-curriculars would remain optional. Oh… and last but not least… replace the test-driven metrics with “costumer reports” like those found in Trip Advisor.


The Disappearing Middle Class and Burgeoning School Population in Poverty

January 26, 2015 Leave a comment

Over the past several days, several articles cited a the Southern Education Foundation report indicating that more than half of the students in public schools qualify for free and reduced lunches. Yesterday’s Kennebec Journal editorial posted on line in CentralMaine.com had the strongest response to this finding. Titled “Public Schools Must Lead the Fight Against Poverty”, the editorial leads with this paragraph:

In the fight against poverty, public schools are the first line of defense. Teachers, counselors and administrators are in the best position to notice when a student is not getting enough food, doesn’t have the proper clothing or is otherwise experiencing something at home that makes learning difficult, and it is those adults who are in the best position to see that student gets the help he needs so that school is not such a struggle.

The article then enumerates all the ways public schools can intervene and assist students who enter with deficient academic and social skills and pulls no punches when it comes to the solution: more funding will be needed to accomplish all that public schools can and, according to the editors, must achieve if we hope to overcome the effects of poverty.

Midway through the editorial there is a brief paragraph offering an explanation of why the percentage of public school students raised in poverty is increasing:

There are a number of reasons for the increase — a rise in single-parent households and immigration, increased enrollment at private schools by those with means and stagnant wages amid rising costs — but the latest recession is not one of them.

NYTimes article in today’s newspaper provides a more detailed picture of the economic forces at play and the demographics of the “middle class” today as compared to 15 years ago:

But since 2000, the middle-class share of households has continued to narrow, the main reason being that more people have fallen to the bottom. At the same time, fewer of those in this group fit the traditional image of a married couple with children at home, a gap increasingly filled by the elderly.

The Times article shows that as people of my generation retire with pensions and social security, the percentage of over-65 members of the middle class is increasing. At the same time the unionized manufacturing jobs that offered decent wages and benefits to my generation are disappearing and being replaced by lower paying part-time jobs. The Times articles offers several profiles of middle class wage earners with school aged children who have fallen into the poverty range and while it doesn’t describe the impact on children it is obvious: job losses and wage decreases can only cause stress at home.

The Kennebec Journal editorial concludes with this assessment of what the public needs to do given the presence of so many children being raised in poverty:

The solution is a commitment to public education and all it has to accomplish.

That means not only valuing and rewarding the best educators, but also funding the pre-K and literacy programs that help low-income students get a fair start to school, as well as the preparatory and counseling initiatives that help them apply for and go to college.

That also means supporting the school-based social service programs that feed, clothe and counsel low-income students, and keep them engaged and learning after school and during the summer break.

It’s not easy, and it is certainly not cheap. But it is necessary. Failing to provide an equal education to low-income students is unfair when they make up a third of all students. When they make up more than half of all students, it’s a potential disaster.

To which I can only say: “Amen”.


Cuomo Declares “Crisis” Where None Exists, and Somewhere Reagan is Smiling

January 26, 2015 Leave a comment

I have read several articles and posts about Mario Cuomo’s State of the State speech wherein he declares that NYS schools are in a state of crisis…. but the NYTimes looked into the issue a couple of days ago and found no evidence to support that assertion. This quote captures the findings of independent education researchers:

In any case, experts said it would be hard to justify describing the situation in New York as a crisis, unless persistent mediocrity itself were a crisis. “Since the early ’90s, New York scored about average, and nothing’s changed,” said Tom Loveless, an education researcher and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, of the NAEP scores. “If New York schools are in a state of crisis, they’ve been in a state of crisis for 20 years.”

Well something HAS changed. It seems that Mr. Cuomo and his “reform” minded friends who operate or invest in privatized charter schools need to have a crisis declared in order to continue their expansion into the “market” of public education. A manufactured “crisis” will help accelerate the spread of these for-profit institutions across the state.

It also seems that Mr. Cuomo has joined the majority of governors who face financial challenges in declaring the “failure of public education” on “bad teachers”. Mr. Cuomo made the link explicit in his speech:

Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, drew a contrast between students’ performance on state tests and teachers’ performance on their annual evaluations. Noting that only a third of students passed the state’s new reading and math tests, and that the vast majority of teachers received good marks, he said the current evaluation system was “baloney” and called for it to be made more stringent.

In Mr. Cuomo’s world there would be fewer “bad teachers” and higher test scores if only the evaluation systems were more stringent. But, as noted in earlier posts, Mr. Cuomo has created the low test score by instituting inappropriately scaled tests and Mr. Cuomo’s analysis of the evaluation systems overlooks the fact that many weak teachers leave the profession when they learn that they might be non-renewed, an action that requires no action by the local Board and is largely unreported in board minutes. Acknowledging that administrators are carefully and thoughtfully evaluating new teachers would not support the “crisis” narrative, though, and so it is unreported in the media and unappreciated by the public.

In declaring a “crisis” where none exists Mr. Cuomo is using the playbook of former President Ronald Reagan, “the great communicator” who declared government as the problem and appointed Terrell Bell whose publication “A Nation At Risk” started the whole meme of “failing schools”. Mr. Reagan would be pleased to see the son of one of his staunch liberal opponents extolling the virtues of the marketplace in public schools.

Citizens United and School Reform

January 26, 2015 Leave a comment

Zephyr Teachout, whose candidacy against incumbent NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo was surprisingly strong, wrote an op ed piece in today’s NYTimes titled “Legal Bribery“. The column decries the effects of Citizens United on the way business is conducted in politics. Using the recent arraignment of Speaker of the House Sheldon Silver as a springboard for her analysis, Teachout describes the way campaign contributions can impact political decision making and lead to outright bribery:

Think of campaign contributions as the gateway drug to bribes. In our private financing system, candidates are trained to respond to campaign cash and serve donors’ interests. Politicians are expected to spend half their time talking to funders and to keep them happy. Given this context, it’s not hard to see how a bribery charge can feel like a technical argument instead of a moral one.

I read this on the heels of reading a recent blog post by Diane Ravitch about campaigns in Douglas County, CO, where pro-privatization candidates won elections and began to dismantle a schools system that was not encountering any serious difficulties. That led me to post this comment:

There is an effect of campaign finance that should disturb public education advocates like Ms. Teachout: investors in privatized public education are underwriting the campaigns of “reform” candidates who favor the replacement of “failing” public schools with for-profit charters. If you don’t think this is happening now read Diane Ravitch’s blog where you’ll see many examples… this one for example:


And state residents must wonder why “school reform” is a front burner issue in NY, NJ, and CT whose schools are performing far better than headlines and their governors want you to believe. Perhaps a look at campaign financing could shed some light on this issue as well.

I realize that there are differences between the kind of campaign contributions Teachout cites and the ones frequently recounted in Diane Ravitch’s column.

  • Governors and state legislators oversee a wide array of functions and, therefore, have many more opportunities to receive campaign funds with implicit quid pro quos.
  • Their elections, particularly those of Governor, tend to generate more coverage and, therefore, engage a higher percentage of the electorate.
  • Contributors interested in providing privatization services need to spend more money to get a state official elected than getting a local official elected.

All of this makes local school board elections and/or elections of “undercard” positions like State Board or State or County Superintendents a relatively cost-effective way to make inroads in privatization. And these “investments” have two benefits: they are completely transparent and, therefore, more defensible; and they can achieve results more rapidly.

Candidates who run on “reform” campaigns are often clear about their intentions and appeal to those who want to be certain their taxes will not increase. By promoting the virtues of the marketplace and the “failure” of public schools candidates can run on platforms that make it clear they are advocating privatization and, if they choose to or need to, accept donations from any number of enterprises that will offer privatization services with a straight face. The campaign contributions in this case mirror the explicit principles of the candidate. They are, in effect, no different than the Sierra Club contributions received by a pro-environmental candidate.

Most importantly to an investor in privatization, once a school board has a majority of pro-privatization candidates, change can occur democratically AND rapidly. By raising hands at a board meeting it would be possible to replace “failing” public schools with for-profit charters or possible to institute some form of vouchers within the constitutional framework of the state, or possible to close all the schools and replace them with for-profit charters. There will be pushback from those who opposed the candidates platforms— especially those who neglected to vote and especially those who would be effected by the closure of schools.

This direction for public education is difficult to reverse once it gets started… and, unfortunately, “the train has already left the station” in several states. As the analysis above indicates, campaign reform won’t necessarily fix the problem: only voter engagement will work… and voters seem to be slow to recognize the demise of their locally controlled public schools.


This Just In: Spending More For Schools DOES Matter

January 25, 2015 Leave a comment

In a study that was cited in many articles over the past few days, economists C. Kirabo Jackson, Rucker Johnson and Claudia Persico report that spending more for schools makes a difference… especially in schools service children raised in poverty. Specifically, their study shows that “a 10 percent increase in spending, on average, leads children to complete 0.27 more years of school, to make wages that are 7.25 percent higher and to have a substantially reduced chance of falling into poverty.” And wait… there’s more!

  • An educated work force earns more and spends more, increasing the strength of the overall economy.
  • An educated electorate is more civil and forward thinking making discourse more rational and decision making more sound.
  • Educated citizens commit fewer crimes thereby reducing social costs.
  • An evenly educated workforce would have less inequality, making it increasingly easy and less expensive to educate children in the future.

But there IS one hitch, as BloombergView blogger Noah Smith notes:

The (study) finds that the benefits of increased spending are much stronger for poor kids than for wealthier ones. So if you, like me, are in the upper portion of the U.S. income distribution, you may be reading this and thinking: “Why should I be paying more for some poor kid to be educated?” After all, why should one person pay the cost while another reaps the benefits?

While I wish Smith’s questions were rhetorical and irrelevant, they are, sadly, direct and practical. Maybe in our country where we still believe a good education is important in order to achieve a good life we might convince voters that providing more money to schools serving children who are raised in poverty is the right thing to do because it provides every child with an opportunity to succeed.

Blackstone Group CEO Takes Hypocrisy to New Levels

January 25, 2015 Leave a comment

International Business Times reporter David Sirota posted a story on January 23 about a speech given at Davos by Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman, a report that seemed so far fetched that I needed to make certain it was not from a satirical source. Schwarzman, “who was once rumored to have likened tax increases to Hitler invading Poland”, suggested that public education was not lacking resources. Why?

“In the Catholic schools they spend much less money than the public schools, and they get amazing results. Private schools spend much more money than the public schools and they get remarkable results. So as an analyst, this can’t be just about money because you keep having great outcomes regardless of that. And so I would suggest that there are a lot of ways to be successful in education. It’s usually good to have more resources of all types, but you can make due with a lot less and have great outcomes in large scale.”

And how would Schwarzman suggest schools provide more services to children? With volunteer retirees who will work for free and unemployed who will work for “next to nothing”…. oh and “technology and other types of things“. Really!

“I’ve always wondered, what you do in a society with people who just retire. If you could get those people, like a board, [to be an] unpaid workforce, pay them next to nothing or nothing, and have them go into the school system to be mentors to kids, and be an example of a certain type of success that you would get dramatically different outcomes. If you can get unemployed people that cost nothing, that can have this dramatic difference, that costs nothing. I love things that cost nothing that have great results. Imagine if you laid on technology and other types of things, you could really set the world on fire with this type of stuff.”

This from a CEO who has also defended the outrageous salaries paid to financial analysts because those sums are needed to attract and retain talent.

This from a CEO who touted Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s efforts to let religious groups run unpaid student mentorship programs in public schools.

This from a CEO who has 1/3 of his investment pool comprised of money from public pension plans — that is, the retirement money of government employees like public school teachers.

To paraphrase one of the commenters to this post, if this is what billionaires are saying publiclyimagine what they are saying when the doors are closed!