Remembering “A Nation At Risk” Part II

September 1, 2014 Leave a comment

The seeds for high stakes testing were planted in “A Nation at Risk”… and the groundwork for high stakes testing was laid the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1987 I was appointed Superintendent in Washington County MD where I was quickly introduced to the work of John Murphy, celebrated Superintendent of Schools in Prince Georges (PG) County. The President of the County Commissioners arranged for me and the Board president to join him in what can only be described as a pilgrimage to Prince George’s County to witness Dr. Murphy’s miraculous transformation of public schools. As noted in the link to Dr. Murphy’s obituary, he was credited with improving PG county’s stature by increasing its standardized test scores. What our county commissioner liked was the WAY he did this: he had a conference room plastered with test results from each school and convened periodic private meetings with principals to make sure they knew how important the improvement of test scores was to him and the school board. If a Principal was unsuccessful at increasing test scores, they would be replaced. In short, Dr. Murphy was using what became the SOP of today: “no-excuses-data-driven-management”.

On the two hour ride back to our district the county commission president shared anecdotes about the horrible leadership at the building level, the terrible teachers in the classroom, and “the fact” that high expectations are more important than more money. In short, he hoped our district would embrace some kind of system like PG County. Evidently, he was not alone in his belief that “money was not the solution to improving schools”… and Dr. Murphy’s results in PG County were getting state and national attention. Change was about to happen in MD as well… in the form of a Report Card that would be issued to every county on an annual basis.


While I DID and DO agree that data collection and analysis is helpful in identifying ways to improve a school district, I DID NOT and DO NOT see a single metric as sufficient and— because of my experiences with Dr. Renzulli and trying to use item analyses from off-the-shelf standardized tests to inform instruction— was ESPECIALLY suspicious of national norm-referenced tests as a valid measure. I was pleased that Nancy Grasmick, the State Superintendent in MD at the time of the advent of Report Cards, and the majority of my colleagues shared this perspective. We made sure the Report Card included more than test results, offered data on school spending, provided disaggregated test data, and was presented in a thoughtful and comprehensive way to the media.

I was distressed to see that in order to receive a waiver for RTTT, Maryland had to abandon its tests and, presumably, the Report Card system that they had in place. For one short time period in the early 1990s it looked like States would be providing legislators and voters with timely and helpful information on what schools needed to be successful. Sadly, that time has passed and we are left with the hollow test scores as the sole metric for school performance.

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Remembering “A Nation At Risk” Part I

August 31, 2014 Leave a comment

A recent blog post from Diane Ravitch described the huge impact “A Nation at Risk” had on the public when it was issued. Many of the commenters lamented the fact that the mainstream media ignored the Sandia report, released in the early 1990s, which contradicted virtually all of the findings of the “Nation at Risk” report.

I began my service as Superintendent of Schools in 1981 and can attest to the outsize impact of “A Nation at Risk”. When it was published, I recall receiving enough copies for me to distribute to my school board members and administrators and advised that additional copies would be available for free or at least at cost. Like many of my colleagues, we saw this report as a means of waking the public to the need to support their public schools and to show that OUR schools were not “at risk”. By the time I took over my second assignment as Superintendent in Exeter NH, in 1984 we began examining our standardized test scores to see how we might improve on them. My assistant and I worked with the representatives of the company that published the standardized tests used in NH at that time and found a way to use the item analyses to determine the areas of the curriculum that contributed to our failure to achieve scores in the 95th percentile instead of the 85th percentile.

At one point during my four years at Exeter we received a grant from an anonymous donor for $10,000 to institute a program for gifted and talented students. The grant DID have on condition: we had to hire Joseph Renzulli as a consultant. While I was unfamiliar with Renzulli’s work at the time, my assistant had worked with him in CT and enthusiastically endorsed his work. At our first meeting with him, he asked me what I hoped to accomplish by implementing the gifted and talented program. I responded that I wanted to increase our test scores from the 85th percentile to the 95th percentile. He asked me why and I was taken aback. After a moment’s hesitation I gave this very bad response: “Why… because 95 is bigger than 85″. What followed was my first lesson in the hollowness of standardized test scores.

Unfortunately, I would need to wait two decades to get to a district where STATE standardized test scores and AP results no longer mattered and witness the advent of high stakes testing that continues unabated to this day.

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Private Public Partnerships: A Failed Magic Bullet

August 30, 2014 Leave a comment

Private Public Partnerships, or P3s, are one of the recent “silver bullets” proposed by those who want to “run government like a business”. But, as reported in the Pittsburg Post Gazette, these P3s are not quite as effective as advertised. First, some background on the P3s taken from the Gazette’s article:

President Ronald Reagan‘‍s plea to “get government off our backs” inspired a mistrust of government’‍s ability to efficiently provide roads, schools and other vital services at a cost taxpayers can afford. Mr. Reagan encouraged the belief that the private sector can do a better job. The result was replacing government workers with private sector workers who mow lawns around government buildings, collect trash, operate school cafeterias and buses, and provide other services under government contracts.

P3s are more far-reaching undertakings than hiring private companies as contractors. They involve turning over infrastructure to private investors who can design it, finance it, build it, operate it, and maintain it.

The ventures are attractive to cash-starved governments, which sometimes get hefty upfront payments. Even when they don‘‍t, investor funds enable governments to take on projects they might not otherwise be able to afford. The deals also fit many taxpayers’‍ notions about cutting waste, eliminating bureaucracy, and running government more like a business.

The article describes one of the celebrated P3 failures, Chicago’s decision to privatize parking meter collections that ultimately resulted in the city receiving “…$974 million less from the 75-year lease than it would have received by keeping the meters and operating them under the same terms it gave to the investors” but DID result in Morgan Stanley, who operates the system, receiving $61,000,000 reimbursement for “lost opportunities” when streets were closed for festivals and over $43,000,000 in profits. So, the Morgan Stanley shareholders got over $100,000,000 in profit while taxpayers lost the chance to save $974,000,000 on their bill. THIS is a good deal?

The four part series describes other adverse consequences of P3s that result primarily from overly optimistic revenue forecasts. For example, when a highway is built based on a long-range forecast based on a baseline of, say, 8 million fee-paying customers and only 7 million drivers participate, it results in the need to charge higher fees which, in turn, reduces the customer base even further. And what happens if the loan payments cannot be paid? No problem: the loans are backed by the federal government!

So… to recount: taxpayers don’t trust the government to build highways so they support having the government turn over the operation to the private sector who, in turn, earns profits or gets bailed out by the taxpayers if their revenue estimates are too high. Oh… and by charging fees they limit the use of these highways to those who can afford fees! Oh again… and because they are PRIVATE corporations their construction methods are not subject to public review or scrutiny.

Bottom line: P3s are an anti-democratic example of profiteering at its worst. They are a lose-lose proposition for taxpayers and a win-win proposition for shareholders.



So IS the Common Core Mandated or not?

August 29, 2014 Leave a comment

Today’s NYTimes has an article my Mokoto Rich reporting that Oklahoma lost its waivers because it failed to adopt the Common Core and did poorly on “…national tests. In 2013, only a third of fourth graders in the state reached proficiency in math and less than a third hit the benchmark in reading.” Waivers WERE granted to KS, VA, and IN even though they failed to adopt the Common Core. VA and IN “…adopted… standards that have been certified by the state’s universities”  but KS did not. The article is a muddle… but it’s really not Rich’s fault. The article is a muddle because the whole waiver process is a muddle. KS evidently GOT a waiver WITHOUT adopting the Common Core because, I goes, they didn’t do as poorly as OK on the standardized tests?

It’s all very confusing… which is why VT’s decision to sidestep the whole waiver process and have their school’s declared “failing” by NCLB seems to be the most sensible step in the Alice-in-Wonderland Waiver World of RTTT.

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The bad teacher conspiracy

August 29, 2014 Leave a comment


I was going to write a post on this… but I hereby surrender to the Mathbabe. She does a GREAT job eviscerating the arguments implicit in this article. BTW, as noted in an earlier post, there IS no tenure!

Originally posted on mathbabe:

Any time I see an article about the evaluation system for teachers in New York State, I wince. People get it wrong so very often. Yesterday’s New York Times article written by Elizabeth Harris was even worse than usual.

First, her wording. She mentioned a severe drop in student reading and math proficiency rates statewide and attributed it to a change in the test to the Common Core, which she described as “more rigorous.”

The truth is closer to “students were tested on stuff that wasn’t in their curriculum.” And as you can imagine, if you are tested on stuff you didn’t learn, your score will go down (the Common Core has been plagued by a terrible roll-out, and the timing of this test is Exhibit A). Wording like this matters, because Harris is setting up her reader to attribute the falling scores to bad teachers.

Harris ends her piece with a reference…

View original 473 more words

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A Third Argument FOR Charters

August 29, 2014 Leave a comment

In a lengthy, well-researched, and thoughtful post yesterday, Diane Ravitch offers two broad arguments for-profit charter school advocates (aka “reformers) use to persuade the public that privatization is the answer to fixing our “failing public schools”:

Argument #1 is that charter schools serve the same students as public schools and manage to put public schools to shame by producing amazingly better results on standardized exams. Therefore, reformers claim, if only public schools did what charter schools do (or better yet, if all public schools were closed and charter schools took over), student learning would dramatically increase and America might even beat South Korea or Finland on international standardized tests…..

When called on the data that clearly show high-flying charters engage in creaming and in pruning, which can account for most of their “success,” they quickly switch to argument #2. Argument #2 claims that charter schools play a different role than public schools. What exactly their role is can vary from “serving high-potential low-income students [14]” to serving as laboratories of innovation.

After elaborating on the argument, Ravitch provides footnoted evidence that demonstrates their flaws. After reading this, I was struck by the fact that she omitted one of the fundamental arguments advanced by “reformers”: namely, that if a charter school fails, unlike a “government school”, it will be closed. This, as evidenced in earlier blogs, doesn’t happen quite as quickly as a poorly managed restaurant that serves bad food— and doesn’t have nearly the adverse consequences for children. The absence of this argument led me to offer this comment:

You forgot argument #3: when charter schools compete like businesses do the failing charters will close. The argument goes like this: “If a charter fails it will be closed but a failing government run public school remains open.” I’m sure you and/or your readers can blow holes in this one. The biggest consequence of this line of thinking is that like a business, charter schools should spend lots of money on advertising and lots of money pushing back if they sense their product is flawed.

Charter schools DO have a place in public education: they CAN serve as a non-traditional alternative to public schools. But profit has no place in schooling because it inevitably leads to a cheapening of the “product” in an effort to reward investors with no regard for the consumer.  If you don’t think that’s the case, ask a shop owner who’s been put out of business by Walmart, a book store who’s been put out of business by Amazon, or a small diner who’s been shuttered in favor of a fast food franchise.


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More on Blockbuster Ruling in Texas About School Funding

August 29, 2014 Leave a comment

More on Blockbuster Ruling in Texas About School Funding.

Diane Ravitch had several posts on this topic yesterday… and this is one I picked to  re-blog and comment on. My comment is this:

I wish I could get excited about this… but… those who oppose equitable funding will push back and it will be decades before the funding formula is fixed. I offer my home state of NH as evidence.

One other factor that I am certain comes into play in TX: the race and ethnicity of the students attending the districts who should receive more money. We’ve witnessed a sad reality in our country: most voters are not interested in meeting the needs of African American and Latino children. The one phrase in Brown vs. Board of Education that sticks out like a sore thumb given where we are a half century later is this: “…all deliberate speed”. Fifty years after the triumphant victory at the Supreme Court we have more segregation than ever.

My pessimistic hunch is that it will take at least another decade for this decision to wend its way though courts and maybe another decade after THAT until any action is taken.

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