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:
- Sampling, where 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.
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.
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.