States Achieve the Results THEY Want By Rigging the Cut Scores on Common Core Tests

October 7, 2015 Leave a comment

Today’s NYTimes article by Mokoto Rich reports on the shenanigans going on in various states in their reporting of test results. The headline on her article, “Test Scores Under Common Core Show That “Proficient” Varies By State”, and the article itself summarizes the facts on the impact of setting cut scores on the standardized tests that are linked to the Common Core, but fails to underscore the political consequences of the practice… and makes no mention of how NYS gamed the tests to create large numbers of “failing” schools.

The setting of cut scores works like this: thousands of children across the country took the same standardized test. When the tests were graded, state departments of education determined what scores would be deemed “proficient”. Some states might require a student to get 40 correct answers to be deemed “proficient” while others might require a student to get 55 correct answers. If a governor who is running for president, say Governor Kasich, wants to be able to boast that his policies resulted in high rates of passing, he could prevail on his appointed Commissioner of Education to set a low score as “proficient”. If a governor wants to use test scores to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of teachers and public schools, say Governor Cuomo, he could insist that the Board of Regents and Commissioner of Education set a high score as “proficient”. In the meantime, no one is asking if these tests help teachers gain a better understanding of their students or of their pedagogy…. because everyone knows the answer is that they do not.

In the meantime, the focus on the inappropriateness of using standardized test results based on age cohorts is not called into question. Instead of questioning how and when students are tested parents and teachers are questioning what they are tested on. It’s the wrong question… for clearly all students need to master the same set of mathematics skills and develop the same reading comprehension skills at some point in their education. Our obsession with determining precisely what students need to learn at the end of first and second grade seems absurd to educators in other developed Western countries, many of whom do not even begin formal schooling until their children are 7 years old.

Moreover, our questions about what students learn results in countless hours of debates over settled science (e.g. evolution vs. intelligent design and climate change), settled history (e.g. the latest flap over the textbooks in Texas that described slaves as willing immigrant workers), and, as always, religion (e.g. the recent brouhaha over teaching about Islam in TN). At some point we need to shift the debate to the question of why it is important for a child to progress at the same rate as his or her age cohorts intellectually when we have no such expectation in terms of  that same child’s physical growth. Alas, such a debate will not score points politically or result in the ability to measure teacher and school performance with seeming precision.

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“Centrist” Brookings Institute Researcher Calls on Presidential Candidates to Advocate Vouchers

October 6, 2015 Leave a comment

Washington Examiner writer Jason Russell in his review of a report written by the “centrist” Brookings Institute scholar Russ Whitehurst concludes that Whitehurst wants to see public choice become a national political issue. I agree with this… particularly given the disproportionate impact that federal laws have on public schools across the country AND given the way Arne Duncan and President Obama effectively unilaterally mandated a new de facto national battery of tests and teacher evaluation system through a grant fund. It is even more urgent given Whitehurst’s call for vouchers, as this paragraph from Russell’s article indicates:

“None of the candidates has to date mentioned, much less taken a position on, what is likely to be one of the most powerful levers of K-12 education reform: open enrollment in regular public schools tied to portable funding,” Whitehurst writes in a new Brookings paper.

Whitehurst doesn’t call what he is advocating “vouchers”, but “portable funding” is the means conservative and libertarian legislators use to implement vouchers which, if implemented, will be the death knell for public education as we’ve envisioned it for generations. Whitehurst goes on to cite examples of how choice is already in place in several areas of the country:

More than half of the nation’s largest school districts already let parents choose a school within their district, including New York City and New Orleans, Whitehurst says. Twenty-three states let students pick a school outside their home district.

Someone who doesn’t follow public education might conclude that students across America can attend whatever school they wish. But in fact very few districts allow students to enroll in whatever school they like. Because of tradition, cost savings, logistical considerations, and the location of school buildings, virtually every school district assigns students to the school nearest their home. And if Mr. Whitehurst believes that NYC parents can choose where their students attend, he needs to talk to the parents of every fifth grade student in the city to see what they need to do to get their children in the school of they choice… and he needs to share with his friends at Brookings that many middle schools reject as many as 90% of the applicants who qualify based on test scores.

As much as Russell, Whitehurst, and I would like to see education be a national issue, Russell notes that it is unlikely given recent elections:

Historically, education issues have gotten little attention during election years. Education coverage in the media drops by 6.5 percent during election years, compared to the previous year. That figure was estimated by Andrew Campanella, a long time school choice advocate. More attention from presidential candidates on the campaign trail could reverse the trend.

We’re witnessing grassroots support for two candidates who are independent-minded because they are  direct in staking out their positions and attuned to the problems everyday Americans face. None of the pundits saw either candidate as a “serious contender” eight weeks ago just as most pundits pay little attention to “marginal” issues like public education. This might be the year voters let their voices be heard on education and might be the time that those who want real reform in schooling get a chance to speak out over the din of the billionaires who want to make a profit from public services.

NYTimes Article on Opt Out Movement Misses the Mark

October 6, 2015 Leave a comment

Anne Murphy Paul’s Motherlode article on the opt out movement, “Instead of Opting Out of Tests, Teach Students to Take Tests Right” utterly and completely misses the point of the opt out movement. In the article Paul naively suggests parents encourage students to test themselves, to avoid cramming for tests, to shuffle their work in unpredictable ways, to study the test itself after taking it, and to develop skills to be calm when a high-stakes test is administered. She ends this list with this preposterous assertion:

The opt-out movement has encouraged many parents and teachers to aspire to a world without tests. But better than getting rid of tests would be turning tests into promising opportunities.

This prompted me to leave the following comment, which drew from ideas Ms. Murphy had for ways that test could be useful:

Sorry, but the opt-out movement has NOT encouraged many parents and teachers to aspire to a world without tests… it wants a world where teachers and students are not obsessed with a single test but rather focussed on the day-to-day assessments that give the student, teacher and parent timely feedback on how well the student is progressing through the curricula adopted by the local district. Standardized tests do not encourage self-testing, do not help students space their study time, do not “change things up”, do not provide students with a means to “study the test” in advance, and because of their “black box” nature and the fact that the continuation of their school’s operation depend on successful pass rates they ADD to test anxiety.

The opt out movement wants testing to be done “…the right way now” to provide their students with “…a deep well of resources to draw on in the future.” They would welcome “…frequent, low-stakes exams instead of infrequent high-stakes ones” that would “…provide timely and detailed feedback on students’ answers to give them an opportunity to learn from the testing process”. They would welcome receiving “…results could be presented to students in a format that fosters a “growth mindset” [9] using scores like Highly Proficient, Proficient and Not Yet, while offering opportunities to improve and try again.”

Unfortunately the NY Regents and NY Governor do not want this kind of test. It would help if they listened to want parents want.

Ms. Paul seems to think that the Regents and the politicians want meaningful tests that will help inform instruction and help parents understand how their children are faring in schools. If that were the case, they would listen to teachers and parents and offer those kinds of tests…. but testing is designed to serve a different purpose altogether in the Global Education Reform Movement.

Complicated State Funding Formula Explained Effectively… OBVIOUS Reasons For It’s Failure to Achieve Equity Overlooked

October 5, 2015 Leave a comment

Google’s feed sent me an excellent article written by Dale Singer of Saint Louis Public Radio that explains with cartoons how the schools are funded now and how the funding formula evolved over time. The overview reminds me how little has changed in the 25 years since I served on Maryland’s Blue Ribbon Task Force and ongoing struggles to provide equitable funding for schools in the 42 states who have been sued over the past several decades.

The MO legislature used two approaches to achieve equal funding for all students: one based on an equity formula that was ultimately scrapped and one based on an adequacy formula the has been in place for several years. In the end, though, it matter less HOW the money is distributed. What counts is HOW MUCH money is applied to the formula. MO State Board of Education chair Charlie Shields provided a good synopsis of why the new adequacy formula doesn’t work:

A formula based on adequacy, he added, would work better, with one big condition: The state has to have the money to fund it fully.

The same thing could have been said about a formula based on equity… but it seems that whenever a legislature sets a goal for schools and money gets tight, the solution is to short-change the funding formula which, in turn, exacerbates the disparities. That’s what happened in MO:

The adequacy formula was set to be phased in over seven years, but the efforts smacked into the 2008 recession, when Missouri’s revenue took a big hit. It’s beginning to recover, but (State Education Department official) Lankford estimated that the state is still $450 million short of what the formula would call for. That translates to $6,110 per student, instead of the $6,716 the formula would call for.

The article quotes others as saying that until the formula is fully funded there is no way to know whether it works or not… and because fully funding seems improbable it is likely that another lawsuit will be in the offing and another generation of students will be shortchanged.

As I read this article, I felt that at least four other states I know of (MD, PA, NH, and VT) continue to struggle to find the “magic formula” for funding schools… and in each state they invariably find that in order to make ANY formula work more money is needed. Former MO State Supreme Justice Mike Wolff provides the best response to the rejoinder that “throwing money at the problem won’t work”:

“If money were unimportant, then people who live in the wealthier districts wouldn’t be so concerned about it, would they? But they’re sure interested in keeping the level of spending for their children at a higher level. I’m not faulting them for that …

“There’s no substitute for money. You can distribute it all you want to, but you have to have more of it.”


It’s Come to This: UN-locked Schools are Newsworthy

October 5, 2015 Leave a comment

I retired from my final assignment as Superintendent of Schools four years ago after serving two communities in the Upper Connecticut River Valley in New Hampshire and Vermont… and unless things have changed dramatically since I left the four schools I oversaw may be the last ones in North America that do not have a buzzer system to allow the entry or video cameras throughout the school.

I thought about this after reading this news account from from the Hamilton (Ontario) Spectator reporting that Halton’s schools are still safe even though they are unlocked as a result of a work stoppage by school secretaries. I found it distressing that the union representing the secretaries saw the monitoring of doors one of the job requirements that gave their membership some leverage in bargaining. From the time I attended school until I retired, that is roughly 60 years, secretaries DID assist with the monitoring of visitors and the scheduling of parent appointments. But the best secretaries also set a positive tone for the school by their interactions with parents, teachers, administrators… AND students. The notion that the secretaries think of themselves first and foremost as gatekeepers for the school— implicitly the only thing separating the safe haven of school with the cold world of gun-toting shooters— is a sign of how much fear is governing the lives of children today.

Since retiring I have served as a consultant to small rural school districts in Vermont and New Hampshire, and upon reflection cannot think of any I’ve been to where there hasn’t been restricted entry. It seemed odd to me since the college community I served kept its school doors open, though, as mentioned in an earlier post, was upgrading the locking system on the egress doors in it’s elementary school to make sure that anyone seeking entry was funneled into a single door that was near the office where people were asked to sign in.

But when a headline reads “”Halton’s Unlocked Public Schools Still Safe, Director Says”, it seems to me we’ve passed a threshold that will be difficult to return from. Put simply, we are inculcating our children with fear of the other when we confine them in locked compounds.

The Curse of Totalitarianism and the Challenge of an Insurrectional Pedagogy (from @Truthdig)

October 4, 2015 Leave a comment

This lengthy article describes the anti-democratic effects of privatization, testing, and consumerism… and offers some ways that schools and especially teachers can push back against this direction that is being imposed politically by the neo-liberal free market thinking embraced by both parties.

It is frightfully clear that the conditions for totalitarianism and state violence are with us, smothering critical thought, social responsibility, the ethical imagination and politics itself.

Source: The Curse of Totalitarianism and the Challenge of an Insurrectional Pedagogy (from @Truthdig)

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The Personalization and Privacy Paradox: How Much Data Collection is TOO Much Data Collection

October 4, 2015 Leave a comment
  • Wouldn’t it be great to come home to a house whose heating levels match your desired level, whose lighting levels are ideal from your perspective, but whose energy use is optimal?
  • Isn’t it convenient that Google retains your recent searches so that you don’t have to type in a lengthy url to get back to a web page you visited 5 days ago?

These questions are easy to answer because these are conveniences that make life easier for us… but both of them are indicative of the kinds of “personalized data collection” done by machines and computers that could ultimately lead to a world where machines ultimately define our desires and every message we read on-line is intermediated by an algorithm. Based on an article in today’s NYTimes by Quentin Hardy it appears that at least two CEOs see us headed that direction and have no hesitation to go that way. In “Business Technology Starts to Get Personal” Hardy describes the visions Apple CEO Tim Cook and GE CEO Jeff Immelt shared at a recent conference where they matter-of-factly described a future where personalized technology is used on every technological device and on every piece of equipment manufactured and the information gathered on each individual is fully integrated. This led me to pose these two questions, both of which reflect existing technology applications:

  • Wouldn’t it be convenient for teachers to be able to determine how much time a students spent trying to solve a mathematics question?
  • Wouldn’t it be ideal if meetings held in a conference room could be reduced to writing and disseminated instantaneously?

With education theorists and policy makers touting the virtue of “personalized learning” and the expanded availability of low cost web-based laptops, it is not inconceivable that teachers could require all classwork be done on a laptop and, in so doing, determine if students are spending sufficient time trying to solve a particular kind of problem or a sufficient amount of time writing a five paragraph essay. This would enable all teachers to help the student develop persistence, help the teacher determine the best way to present a particular concept to each individual child, and to help curriculum developers determine the optimal way to sequence the materials each student is expected to master.

A part of the “personalized learning” model is for parents, teachers, and the student to confer to develop a de facto IEP for them. This has been perceived as a daunting task… but with “…(e)quipment and software like whiteboards or conference-call phones record who is in a meeting or tag what was said” the paperwork associated with this undertaking suddenly disappears.

Neither of these potential education apps was described or discussed in Hardy’s article… but the article did note “peculiarities” about massive data collection foreseen by Erik Brynjolfsson,  a professor of management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the authors of “The Second Machine Age,” which he describes as a “…book on an industrial world enchanted by computing.”

“With enough data, you can infer drug use or political persuasions,” he said. “These are things that are racing ahead, and we haven’t thought them through.”

There will be benefits like buying a used car and knowing how it was driven and what is likely to go wrong with it. There may also be challenging effects from companies that collect and manipulate their data the best.

Mr. Hardy concludes his essay with this:

If it turns out like the consumer Internet, we’ll be delighted with the rewards of being spied on, even if we don’t know what they are yet.

At a conference I attended recently on climate change, one of the speakers talked about our culture’s blind faith in technology, which he called “technology fundamentalism”. He asserted that many believe there is no reason to be fearful of what we are doing to ourselves by spewing toxins into the atmosphere because eventually we will develop some kind of technology that will mitigate it and we’ll be able to continue living the way we are today. In effect, our belief that all data collection will ultimately be used for benign ends is a form of technological fundamentalism, and like all forms of fundamentalism based on faith, such a perspective requires us to collectively drop our guard.  I believe we should move ahead with technology applications, but we should also heed Mr. Brynjolfsson’s implicit warning and think things through NOW before we collect the billions of objective data points that could ultimately be used as dossiers that limit the ultimate development of each individual’s potential.