To my Niece Who’s Going on Strike

September 19, 2014 Leave a comment

I learned with dismay that my niece’s school district in OH is going on strike. As a former Superintendent, I always avoided taking sides in labor relations, advocating that both sides seek a settlement instead of a “victory”. While I am not familiar with all the details, there some facts that seem especially problematic:

  • The board talked to the press about the offer before the teachers did
  • The board offered binding arbitration and the teachers refused
  • The board wants “merit pay” to be included as at least an “option” for the teachers to consider
  • The teachers want to cap class sizes
  • The teachers want to retain their current health benefits while the Board wants to offer a lump sum in lieu of benefits— presumably to get the money they need to provide the additional “merit” compensation

There are some political realities to strikes that are also problematic.

  • BOTH SIDES LOSE SUPPORT DURING A STRIKE: To paraphrase Al Shanker:  “When the board calls the teachers “greedy, lazy, good-for-nothings” and the teachers call the Board members “hard-headed, heartless, know-nothings” the public believes them both.
  • AND…. BOTH SIDES NEED TO KEEP THE EYE ON THE PRIZE: Ultimately, both parties presumably want to pass a HIGHER budget if the board is serious about giving teachers performance pay and the teachers want to cap class size. A long strike with angry exchanges will make budget passage a challenge.
  • THE MEDIA LOVE CONFLICT: Facts will take a holiday during the strike and the media will ultimately decide “what the strike is about”… and it will not be a nuanced perspective on the issues, it will be a series of sound bites. A cautionary note: if the editors of the newspaper or the owners of TV and radio stations take the board’s side the public’s support for the teachers could diminish quickly…. and, based on my reading of Diane Ravitch’s reports from OH it seems the OH media have taken the side of fiscally conservative Boards and “reform” politicians against “unions”. Social media may be the best hope for the teachers to “make their case” to voters… but only if the reach extends beyond parents.
  • MANY MEMBERS OF THE PUBLIC HAVE SEEN THEIR PAY AND BENEFITS DIMINISH: As noted in many previous posts, many middle class voters have lost the benefit packages corporations offered in the past and this has turned many voters against teachers who “traded” higher compensation for better benefits.
  • ARBITRATION IS PERCEIVED AS A “FAIR WAY” TO SETTLE LABOR DISPUTES: I trust that the Uniserv representative is ready to explain to voters in my niece’s community why the teachers decided to avoid arbitration as a means of reaching an agreement…. because if it doesn’t the public may be inclined to have sympathy for the Board.

As readers of this blog know, I believe merit pay is a losing proposition (see “Merit Pay: An Agreeable Fantasy” previously published in Education Week for details), especially merit pay that is linked in any way to test scores. Furthermore I believe that having manageable class sizes and a wide array of course offerings and support services is essential for ALL school districts, not just the most affluent ones.

I HOPE this turns out well for the parents, students, and community members in my niece’s community… but fear that both sides may be seeking a “victory” where a “settlement” is needed.

Where You Live Effects How You Do in School

September 19, 2014 Leave a comment

Thomas Edsall’s NYTimes op ed piece poses the question “Does Moving Poor People Work?”, and the bottom line answer is “Yes BUT…”

In the article Edsall reviews several longitudinal studies involving the effects of relocating poverty stricken families from public housing. In a study done by University of Chicago researcher Jens Ludwig that triggered the essay on housing vouchers, the researchers found “mixed results”. While some measures of well being improved,

“…a housing voucher that allowed recipients to move into a “low poverty” area – had “no consistent detectable impacts on adult economic self-sufficiency or children’s educational achievement outcomes, even for children who were too young to have enrolled in school at baseline.”

Ludwig’s findings were challenged by “some of the nation’s most prominent social science researchers”, notably William Julius Wilson who contended the study was flawed because those

“…who left public housing moved into segregated neighborhoods nonetheless, far from employment opportunities and with equally bad schools – often the same schools.”

Robert Sampson, a colleague of Wilson’s in the sociology department at Harvard, expressed additional concerns with the study, noting (with my emphasis added) that:

“…many of the adults in the program had lived in extreme poverty for decades and that the children, who were on average 11 years old when they entered the program, had spent their early years living in adversity. “The result,” he wrote, “is that developmental effects are difficult if not impossible to study in the research design,” which does not reveal the “lagged effects of severe disadvantage.”

Moreover, James Heckman, who has studied cognition in depth, concludes that by age 11 the opportunity for cognitive growth is limited. This makes any conclusions about the effects of this voucher program on academic performance questionable.

While the results of the Ludwig study were mixed, a study by the Rand Foundation done I’m Montgomery County demonstrated that moving poverty stricken families into decidedly middle class neighborhoods and schools DID make a difference:

The low-income minority children from public housing all started with similar math scores. But after seven years, those who went to schools where fewer than 20 percent of their classmates were poor shot ahead of those who went to schools where 20 to 80 percent of their classmates were poor. This difference in trajectories is shown in Figure 1 (below), in which the green line tracks math scores for poor children (defined as those receiving “free and reduced-priced meals” – a.k.a. FARM recipients) in relatively affluent schools, and the red line tracks math scores for poor children attending schools with much higher percentages of fellow students receiving FARM assistance.edsall-chart-master315Edsall concludes his article with this paragraph:

We have to figure out a better way to approach intervention, whether it’s education-based or neighborhood-based or both. Otherwise how can we interrupt the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage we are only beginning to understand?

Edsall didn’t note in the article that any decision to locate public housing in relatively affluent neighborhoods is likely to be contentious… nor did he note that “education-based” interventions will require additional revenues. My take on this: we already understand what we need to do to “… interrupt the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage”… we just don’t have the political will to do it.

You Read it Here First! Pre-K $$$ are Backdoor Vouchers!

September 18, 2014 Leave a comment

I just read an article in the Deseret News announcing that there is now bi-partisan support for Pre-K funding since the House just passed a “compromise” bill that

“… offers vouchers to low-income families that will allow them to obtain child care from their choice of providers, including faith-based organizations, according to a statement released by the Education & the Workforce Committee.”

Will the Senate OK this compromise?

If so, will Obama sign it?

If the answer to these questions is “Yes”, remember, you read it here first over a year ago when your humble blogger predicted that the only way bi-artisan support for Pre-L was possible was through some form of vouchers…. I concluded that article with this paragraph:

Our country needs earlier educational programs for children born into poverty. It needs programs that are staffed by teachers with a strong background in early childhood education and programs that are coordinated with other publicly funded social services. My fear is that the federal government will promote the practical and politically feasible solution to the need for child care instead of the program needed to close the divide between rich and poor families. Using public funds to support the existing loosely regulated preschools in place would be a missed opportunity…. unless the opportunity to have public schooling be “…this market kind of thing” is more important that the opportunity to have all children begin public schooling with a strong background.

I hope someone in the Senate names this for what it is: a backdoor means of getting vouchers for public education.

Nevada: Big $$$ for Tesla, No $ for Schools

September 18, 2014 Leave a comment


The giveaway of tax $$$ to corporations seeking to maximize profits is one of the continuing themes of this blog… and as noted in my comment at the end there is a web site that can be used to see just how much YOUR state gave away:
Thanks to Greg Easterbrook for this lead!

Originally posted on Diane Ravitch's blog:

Nevada is giving more than $1 Billion in tax breaks to woo automaker Tesla to build a huge factory to produce electric batteries.

The deal is controversial but not among Nevada legislators, who expect it to produce economic benefits and 6,500 jobs.

Education also produces economic benefits and jobs, but legislators don’t mind underfunding their schools, increasing class sizes, and short changing the next generation of Nevadans.

The Néw York Times says that Nevada is paying about $200,000 for each job that might be created.

Did Tesla really need the tax break to locate in Nevada?

“Richard Florida, a global research professor at New York University and a frequent critic of development incentives, said the factory would probably have been built in Nevada even without the generous subsidy.

“They had the site picked out; they started on it,” he said in an email. Companies like Tesla “exploit that information asymmetry,”…

View original 59 more words

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If you think like a General, You Might Start a War

September 18, 2014 Leave a comment

The Guardian today features a story reporting that 26 school districts in the United States have taken advantage of the Pentagon’s discount prices on machine guns, grenade launchers, M-16s, and mine-proof vehicles. What could go wrong?

Here’s a set of priceless quotes from the article:

The Los Angeles unified school district, the nation’s second-largest at 710 square miles with more than 900,000 students enrolled, said it would remove three grenade launchers it had acquired because they “are not essential life-saving items within the scope, duties and mission” of the district’s police force.

But the district would keep the 60 M16s and a military vehicle known as an MRAP used in Iraq and Afghanistan that was built to withstand mine blasts. (see picture below)

School Police Militarization

District police Chief Steve Zipperman told the Associated Press that the M16s were used for training and the MRAP, parked off campus, was acquired because the district could not afford to buy armoured vehicles that might be used to protect officers and help students in a school shooting.

“That vehicle is used in very extraordinary circumstances involving a life-saving situation for an armed threat,” Zipperman said. “Quite frankly I hope we never have to deploy it.”

Here are a few more excerpts from the article with my commentary in BOLD RED.

In Texas, Tina Veal-Gooch, executive director of public relations at Texarkana ISD, said the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, led the district to acquire assault rifles and it had no plans to return them. How the possession of assault weapons by police would have helped in the Newtown shootings is left to the reader’s imagination. 

In Florida, Rick Stelljes, the chief of Pinellas county schools police, said the county possessed 28 semi-automatic M16 rifles. They had never been used, and he hoped they never would be, but they were “something we need given the current situation we face in our nation. This is about preparing for the worst-case scenario.” What is the  “current situation we face in our nation” that warrants a school district having 28 semi-automatic weapons? Is ISIS going to attack Pinellas county schools? 

Democratic congressman Adam Schiff said while there was a role for surplus equipment going to local police departments “it’s difficult to see what scenario would require a grenade launcher or a mine-resistant vehicle for a school police department”. He’s at least partially right: there is no reason for schools to have grenade launchers or MRAPs… but I’m not convinced there’s a need for a local police department to have these either. 

The militarization of police forces is a by-product of the media’s fear-mongering and the NRA’s successful messaging that the only thing protecting “us” from “bad guys” is a “good guy with a gun”…. or in this case a good guy with a grenade launcher, machine gun, semi-automatic weapon, and MRAP.

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What’s Passing?

September 18, 2014 Leave a comment

As readers of this blog realize, I am unalterably opposed to high stakes standardized testing, especially norm referenced tests administered to age-based cohorts of students. On the other hand, I would support the development of systematic formative assessments that could be used to monitor a student’s mastery of a sequence of hierarchical skills. The results of well-crafted formative assessments could help a teacher diagnose where a student is encountering difficulties and, in doing so, suggest alternative approaches that might be more effective. In fact, in my experience the difference between an extraordinary teacher and a good teacher is how they assess students. The very best teachers expect mastery of the content they are teaching. Consequently they design assessments that are linked to clear learning objectives they developed based on their experience and knowledge of the content they are teaching… and the very best teachers encourage students to retake assessments until they demonstrate a complete understanding of those learning objectives.

This brings me to a blog post by Diane Ravitch regarding the announcement in Broward County (FL) that they plan to develop 1500 tests. This sounds astonishing until one realizes that as an 8th grade math teacher in 1970 I administered at least 30 tests per year, a number that was matched by my team members in science, language arts, and social studies. My colleagues and I also gave periodic quizzes to make certain the students were doing their homework and understanding the concepts we taught. The typical 8th grade student taught by our team in Philadelphia, then, had 120 tests and hundreds of additional quizzes. Given that frame of reference, 1500 tests seems like a reasonable number.

Here was the first quandary I faced as a math teacher: a mismatch between the students’ knowledge and the text books I was given. Some of the 140 math students I faced in the first week of school were unable to add, subtract, multiply and divide. Only a handful could do all of the operations successfully. The pre-algebra books I was given matched the written curriculum in Philadelphia. They had roughly 20 pages reviewing basic operations and went on to topics like graphing, negative numbers, algebraic equations, and, by the end of the book, imaginary numbers. As noted in an earlier blog post, the only thing that saved me was the use of elementary level ditto masters I got from my father’s best friend who sold DC Heath text books and, later in the year, a set of masters I wrote that made it possible to individualize instruction in the classroom. And here was the second quandary: at the end of the year what grade should I assign to the students who worked diligently on my individualized ditto sheets and eventually completed the “tests” I designed for them? I didn’t hesitate: if a student worked assiduously and made progress they received a passing grade. My students who received a passing grade clearly did not master the 8th grade written curriculum but many of them DID learn their basic operations, albeit at a later time in their academic careers than the city expected.

It struck me at the time, and informs my beliefs today, that schools that test and emphasize COVERAGE of the curriculum miss the point: it is MASTERY of the curriculum that is important… and MASTERY takes more time for some students than others… and MASTERY tests are different from COVERAGE tests: they are formative tests that can be used to determine where a student is on a sequenced hierarchical learning continuum and what kind of intervention might be helpful if a student is stuck.

Based on the article in the Sun Sentinel that triggered Diane Ravitch’s post, it is evident that the motives behind Broward County’s testing mania is deeply misguided. They are NOT using the test to ensure mastery on the part of STUDENTS but rather to fulfill a legislative mandate to use value added tests whose results purportedly can be used to measure TEACHER performance. Oh, and FLA’s tests are based on the Common Core, which assumes that all students begin school with the same knowledge base and learn at the same rate. These assumptions are baseless and, consequently, teachers are inaccurately identified as “failures” as are schools serving students who begin with a baseline deficit of knowledge. The result is that the whole notion of developing an agreed upon curriculum sequence and systematic testing of students is under fire.

I am distressed at the current use of assessments because I believe it is important to have a common curriculum, it is possible to develop a systematic sequence of mastery tests that teachers could use to measure a student’s progress through that common curriculum, and most importantly, I believe time should be variable and learning constant. I am distressed at the time and money spent on the “Common Core” curriculum written by outsiders and on the development of tests based on the assumption that students learn the curriculum at the same rate. This approach reinforces the existing factory school paradigm and is a huge step backward. It would be far better to use the money, time and energy spent developing COVERAGE tests to develop MASTERY tests designed to help teachers diagnose each student’s progress using evidence-based research. These MASTERY tests could have been devised and refined by classroom teachers (as opposed to test developers) using crowd sourcing software under the leadership of education professors whose primary interest is child development (as opposed to psychometrics).  The emphasis on MASTERY learning would, in turn, move us away from the batching of students by age cohorts and toward a more individualized approach to instruction. Moreover, by focussing on why STUDENTS struggle our country might begin to tack the underlying causes of “failing schools”, which is poverty and not poor teaching.

What, then, is a passing grade? A passing grade is given when progress is made toward mastery. Using that as a yardstick, NCLB and RTTT do not pass.

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Let’s Be Like China!

September 17, 2014 Leave a comment

Today’s NYTimes features an interview with Yong Zhao, a professor of education at the University of Oregon who immigrated from China and has written extensively contrasting the Chinese education system to ours. The article should be read in its entirety, for it reinforces many of the assertions set forth in this blog and the blogs of progressive educators. Namely:

  • The focus on test scores results in a narrowing of the curriculum
  • The focus on test scores damages the self-confidence of many students
  • Test scores measure “…something very different from the quality of education… parents, educators and children desire.”
  • The Common Core State Standards Initiative has been pushed to many states, creating de facto national standards in math and English language arts. So American education today has become more centralized, standardized and test-driven, with an increasingly narrow educational experience, which characterizes Chinese education.”
  • “We need an education that enhances individual strengths, follows children’s passions and fosters their social-emotional development. We do not need an authoritarian education that aims to fix children’s deficits according to externally prescribed standards.”

Zhao describes the difficulty China is encountering in transforming its authoritarian system. He states that in order to make the kinds of changes he advocates will require “…the people and leaders to consider different pathways, different voices and different values without automatically assuming evil intentions in dissenting opinions.”

We do not have a culture of authoritarianism in our country, but we do have a culture of competition, a “winner-take-all” culture that, taken to its ultimate conclusion, can result in de facto authoritarianism. Corporations do not operate on democratic principles and are frustrated when democratically elected officials enact regulations that limit profits and/or expect the kind of public disclosures that are necessary in a democracy. All of this led me to leave this comment;

The convergence of US and Chinese education systems mirrors the convergence of US and Chinese economic systems. Opportunities for economic advancement are diminishing in our country because opportunities for educational advancement are diminishing. We cannot claim that every child has an equal opportunity to learn until every child in our country experiences the kind of education program offered in our most affluent public school systems. Setting high standards and administering rigorous tests will only move us further down the path of authoritarianism China is striving to escape.

As noted frequently in this blog, the public sees our schools as factories and, consequently, strives to have them operate “efficiently”. We use standardized tests to sort and measure the progress of students who are “efficiently” batched in age cohorts, ignoring the reality that not all children mature at the same rate and not all children enter the “factory” with the same backgrounds. Because of this our definitions of “failing schools” are flawed given the practical reality that children raised in poverty often begin school with a weaker “academic” background than children raised in affluent homes. We’ve administered standardized achievement tests for decades and we know that schools serving children raised in poverty have lower get scores than schools serving children raised in affluence. When will we acknowledge that POVERTY is the underlying cause of this “failure” on the part of schools and NOT the teachers or the “government monopoly”?  When? When “…the people and leaders to consider different pathways, different voices and different values without automatically assuming evil intentions in dissenting opinions.” You see, we ARE already like China!