There is no “Tenure”

August 19, 2014 Leave a comment

Frank Bruni’s column, “The Trouble with Tenure” is based on a false premise. Namely, he continues the canard that teachers have “tenure” and that “tenure” is a bad thing. Having read the comments in the “NYTimes’ Picks”  section it is clear that many readers eloquently explained why “tenure” is needed: school boards, administrators, and the public CAN be unfair. Because no one in that group addressed the misuse of the term “tenure”, I offered the following comment:

Teachers do not have “tenure” and an experienced teacher can be dismissed. Teachers are afforded DUE PROCESS after receiving a CONTINUING CONTRACT following a PROBATIONARY PERIOD. The “due process” can be a complex procedure dictated by pages of detailed language that teachers’ unions negotiated or it might be a short description of how a hearing would be held before a school board or impartial labor board. The protections provided by the “continuing contract” are either defined by state law or state or local board policy. The length of the “probation” for teachers is either defined by law or negotiated by teachers and the school board. If a teacher is performing poorly, the administration is required to document the poor performance in accordance with the rules outlined above. Having worked as a school administrator for 35 years I know it can be done. I also know protections for teachers are needed for all reasons cited in other comments. Finally, having worked as an administrator for 35 years it rankles me to see “tenure” being used incorrectly as a way to avoid addressing the effects of poverty and to avoid the truth about public education: the VAST majority of teachers work hard for too little money and deserve the public’s wholehearted support.

In my 35 years as an administrator I spent more time working with underachieving teachers and administrators than I spent more time dealing with poor performing teachers than I spent celebrating the hard work of the many high performing teachers. I could fill MANY blog posts with anecdotes that would explain why teachers need the protections they are afforded with a continuing contract. Like so many of the “solutions” the school reform movement comes up with, “eliminating tenure” is fast, cheap, and easy. Any “solution” that doesn’t include those three ingredients is snake oil.

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Job Training Now and Then

August 18, 2014 Leave a comment

Today’s NYTimes featured an article detailing the deficiencies of the Workforce Investment Act.  This $3,100,000,000 expenditure was recently reauthorized by Congress despite the fact that it has no mechanism for measuring its success and despite the fact that it often leaves the presumed “beneficiaries” of the legislation— unemployed workers seeking retraining— worse off than when they started. How does this happen? The short answer is the effects of the unregulated operation of for-profit schools that promise job placement and charge tuitions that far exceed those of public institutions. When graduates are unable to get placed in the higher wage jobs they trained for they are left with debt and jobs that pay entry level wages at best… and in some cases, even the jobs they trained for are low wage.

There was a time not so long ago that employers provided entry-level and ongoing training for those they hired operating on the belief that their training was superior to any “generic” training an outside institution could provide. This required the company to have employees who provided the training, which added to their operating costs, and reduced their profits… but it also resulted in companies nurturing their employees and perceiving them as “human resources” as opposed to replaceable parts. In today’s corporate world, “human resources” is perceived as an oxymoron because of the relatively small investment corporations make in training their staff.

The “free agent nation” that replaced “corporate slavery” benefits those with unique skills: someone with unique skills can make much more money in today’s economy than they could make in the old economy where one worked for decades for one company and worked their way up the ladder or became “stuck” in some mid-level job. But the “free agent nation” paradigm doesn’t work for those who were pushed out of mid-level jobs when the hierarchies in large corporations collapsed and low-level jobs were outsourced.

Here’s the disappointing bottom line: No amount of training can restore the jobs of yore or the wages of yore. We’ve chosen a race-to-the-bottom in wages in order to keep profits high instead of investing in education and training. If the government wanted to help those who lost jobs, they should create incentives for employers to provide on-the-job training for the kinds of displaced workers described in the Times article instead of funding flawed intermediaries like for-profit schools.


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Ferguson’s Demographic Problem is EVERYWHERE

August 17, 2014 1 comment

The Naked Capitalism blog featured a link to a Bloomberg Business Week article by Peter Coy titled “The County Map That Explains Ferguson’s Tragic Discord”. The article described the idiosyncratic governance structure in MO whereby a “city” like Saint Louis is actually comprised of 92 different governmental jurisdictions that:

…set themselves up as municipalities to capture control of tax revenue from local businesses, to avoid paying taxes to support poorer neighbors, or to exclude blacks.

Coy concludes the paragraph with this assertion, which he elaborates upon in the article: “Their behavior has ranged from somewhat parochial to flatly illegal.” 

Having 92 jurisdictions competing against each other is great for business: they all provide ever increasing tax incentives for new businesses in a race to the bottom that depresses local tax bases. It also leads to differences in racial demographics between communities as whites flee municipalities when blacks move in. Having lived in, worked in, and driven through several metropolitan areas I know that Ferguson is no exception to the rule. Darby Township, Chester PA, and Camden NJ all share Ferguson’s plight as does Newburgh, Beacon, and Poughkeepsie NY and several small communities outside NYC. Within cities neighborhoods have the same kinds of issues (see my recent post on the neighborhood surrounding Shaw JHS in the 1970s for a classic example). And the demographic isn’t purely racial: it’s often economic as well. Communities with high property values often “break away” from regional districts in NH when they sense that their resources are being unfairly used to prop up the schools from neighboring communities with a lower tax base.

Unless public services like education are funded through broad based taxes we will continue to create “Fergusons” where there is latent discontent because its citizens sense they are being given the short end of the stick…. but changing governance patterns like those in MO, NY, NH, PA, and virtually EVERY state in the union will require a change of heart, and that is a challenge in today’s world.

Vote the pro-Reformers Out? I hope so!

August 17, 2014 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch wrote a post yesterday describing fellow blogger Paul Thomas’ idea that we are entering “Phase 3″ of the “corporate reform movement”, a phase where political action is needed. He recommends repeatedly pointing out the facts about education in an effort to have voters and politicians realize that corporate reform is failing. Diane Ravitch counters that facts probably don’t matter in the political arena and concludes her post with this thought:

I think that Phase 3 commences when parents and educators wake up and throw the rascals out of office. In state after state, they are attacking public education, teachers , and the principle of equality of educational opportunity. The best way to stop them is to vote them out.

In response to this post I wrote:

“Vote them out” IS the best answer… which is why some of your posts describing union endorsements are so disheartening. If unions can’t get behind Zephyr Teachout and the Working Families Party chooses Cuomo over Teachout because they are believing a promise he made to turn the Senate over to the Democrats how can NYS get “the right people elected”? And, alas, Citizen’s United means that any politician who can raise huge sums of money will continue to dominate the media by buying advertising that slanders their opponent and promotes whatever fanciful promises they make. Finally, the domination of two parties makes it impossible for educators. The neoliberal’s control of the Democratic party means that BOTH party’s have the same view about education contrary to what Fox News et al are promoting. (To read some right-wing blogs one would think the Democrats are promoting Socialism in schools and are tools of the unions!) I haven’t given up hope on democracy in our country, and I DO think we are heading for an awakening at some point… and I hope it happens very soon. Otherwise we’ll be stuck with a choice between, say, Hillary Clinton and some “moderate”.

I try to keep political discourse out of this blog… but in order to counter the corporate reform movement it will be important to elect board members, state legislators, senators and representatives, and– yes– Presidents who are opposed to corporate take overs public schools. Primary elections are often not on voter’s radar and as we’ve learned from the recent riots in Ferguson MO even local elections are followed closely. We need to use the ballot box to let politicians know we are opposed to the privatization of public enterprises… and SOON!


NYTimes Op Ed Spreads the Word

August 17, 2014 Leave a comment

David Kirp’s op ed essay, “Teaching is Not a Business“, echoes many posts on this blog. In addition to the pithy aphorism that serves as the title, Kirp’s essay touches on a host of topics that I’ve blogged on in detail, including:

  • the need for teachers to be champions for their students
  • the failed idea of using standardized tests as the ultimate measure of education, teacher performance, and school performance
  • the demonstrable failure of the “turnaround” idea
  • the shortcomings and pitfalls of merit pay plans
  • the lack of evidence that charter schools are any better than public schools
  • the reality that organizational change is superior to the quick fix inherent in “disruption” and the application of traditional business practices
  • the reality that organizational change takes time
  • the inherent messiness of any enterprise that provides human services
  • the failed promise of technology

A look back at blog posts will show that the number of Times articles championing market-based solutions to education, the use of business practices in public education, charters, vouchers, disruptive technology, and “turnaround schools” FAR outnumber the articles like Kirp’s that are based on practical, realistic solutions. I’m glad the Times is giving its readers “the rest of the story”…. but expect to see several counter arguments in letters to the editor characterizing Kirp as a defender of the status quo, a union apologist, and an academic promoting failed ideas. I hope I’m wrong.


NYS Testing Shenanigans

August 16, 2014 Leave a comment

I’ve read several articles and blog posts about the NYS tests… and all of them underscore the flaws of using standardized tests to measure the effectiveness of schools.

The “Lace To The Top” blog provides the clearest example of the flaws with standardized test scores: the cut score can be modified from year to year to alter the pass rates. As anyone familiar with standardized tests realizes, the scores are not “standard” in a pure mathematical sense. As the blog points out:

Results of the Math tests are up 4.6%, but the cut score was lowered by 3% (3rd grade). In 2013, students needed to receive 44 out of a possible 60 points in order to achieve a passing score of 3. In 2014, students needed to only receive 42 out of a possible 60 points in order to receive a passing grade of 3.

Results of the ELA tests are up 0.1%, but the cut score was lowered by 2% (3rd grade).  In 2013, students needed to receive 35 out of 55 possible points to achieve a passing score of 3. In 2014, students needed to only receive 30 out of a possible 49 points to receive a passing grade of 3.

So while the perception of the public is that these “standards” are objective and mathematically invariant the reality is that they are subjective and fungible… as they must be since the questions vary from year to year. Thus, as any student who passed a course in education statistics knows, standardized tests are NOT precise. The public, however, has a different perception,  a perception that is reinforced when schools are rated against each other based on numeric scales generated by the test developers and promulgated without any caveats by State Departments of Education.

The overall lack of transparency in the NYS tests was the topic of a City Limits blog post by Fred Smith last Monday. The post describes the change in the way test results were shared with teachers and the public. Before Pearson took over the testing in 2011,

SED made complete copies of the annual statewide exams available on its web site shortly after they were given, along with the answer keys. People could ponder the test content and thought processes required of students to answer the questions. Every year, no later than December, a technical report was issued giving specific information about each item.

Now, only 50% of the questions are shared and the technical report is non-existent or released too late for teachers to use the results to inform instruction. This is especially problematic given that the tests will be used to rate and rank teacher performance. The practice underscores the reality that these tests are NOT being used to inform instruction in the classroom or help students but rather being used as an evaluation tool… or more accurately being MIS-used as an evaluation tool. And though Smith does not mention it in his analysis of the test results, I believe Pearson is the culprit here: since they are writing the test they probably are using some kind of “proprietary right” argument to avoid releasing the kinds of broad data SED formerly issued– another adverse by-product of privately contracting for the test development.

Anthony Cody’s Living in Dialogue blog post recounts the sordid history of standardized testing, describing how the tests were originally designed to sort employees into manual labor assignments or office jobs. It emphasizes the explicit link between eugenics and standardized testing but overlooks the more subtle and, in my judgment, more damaging link between Taylorism and testing. The use of tests reinforces the notion that the “output” of education can be objectively measured in the same way that a manufactured product can be measured using, say, a micrometer. As noted previous posts, the standardization paradigm is necessary for those who wish to privatize education and leads to a narrowing of the curriculum because teaching to the test is more efficient than giving children the time to learn a concept deeply.

Alas, the testing shenanigans will continue until the public wakes up to the realization that standardized testing ISN’T exacting and IS undermining their children’s joy of learning.

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CCSS: A Victory for Reagan, Friedman, and Nordquist

August 16, 2014 Leave a comment

In a blog post yesterday, Diane Ravitch described Bill Gates’ latest efforts to ensure that the Common Core becomes the de facto national curriculum. The Gates and Helmsley Foundation have underwritten a new non-profit with “… plans to review textbooks and other instructional material for fidelity to the Common Core.”  So Gates has underwritten the writing of the Common Core, the implementation of the Common Core, the evaluation of the Common Core, and is now underwriting the effort to bake the Common Core into textbooks for years to come.

Thank Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman, and Grover Nordquist for this development. The “problematic” government (e.g. the State Departments of Education) got small enough to drown in a bathtub and the “free market” is now “coming to the rescue”. RIP State and local control of the curriculum and hello to the curriculum driven by the oligopoly of standardized test makers.

I am concerned that in their ad hominem attack on Bill Gates many progressive educators are missing the bigger picture…. and some of the problems Gates and his fellow philanthropists are solving are ones created by the complaints of teachers and administrators.

The biggest problem, as described repeatedly in this blog, is that Ronald Reagan and his progeny have persuaded the people that government is the problem… and among the people who bought into this idea were teachers, school board members, and administrators who bemoaned the mandates of the bureaucrats at the State Department of Education. Many educators were happy to see cuts to the State Departments of Education instead of cuts to their districts and many school boards preferred hiring their own curriculum coordinators instead of relying on those “bureaucrats” at the state level.

Nordquist and his acolytes, who wanted extreme limitations placed on spending helped brand public education as “government run” schools and that, in turn, led to cuts at all levels of public education.

In the meantime, Milton Friedman’s concepts about the magic of the marketplace began to take root to the point where his once radical idea of vouchers became seriously considered by both political parties.

All of this created a void that Bill Gates and the tech community were only too happy to fill. Basically, Bill Gates is doing what “the business community” has desired for years: he is standardizing the high school degree so that it has a common definition across the country…. and in developing a national standard he is opening the door for “edu-preneurs” in the technology field to make a profit in education by eliminating the traditional role of teachers. Instead of teachers developing creativity and independent thinking in their students they are being rewarded for developing students who can take tests well. The ability to score well on “objective” tests, in turn, can serve as the “gold standard” for “objectively” measuring school and teacher performance.

In short, decrying Bill Gates misses the point. ALL of Gates’ work on the common core is the result of economic inequality. Because he and his hedge fund friends are able to accumulate wealth that was formerly distributed among school districts and State Departments of Education, ONLY he and his hedge fund friends can provide the services that were formerly provided by “the government”…. and he and his hedge friend funds want to see things standardized across the board. Their motives may or may not be pure, but at this juncture no state government is challenging the federal government’s de facto dictate to adopt the CCSS.