Author Archive

Rolling Stone and UVA

December 20, 2014 Leave a comment

Rolling Stone magazine ran an article two months ago describing the horrific treatment a young UVA co-ed experienced at a fraternity party where she became intoxicated and was raped repeatedly. The story was picked up by mainstream media and became national news. The UVA President closed down all fraternity parties, began serious exploration of the complete elimination of fraternities, and called for soul searching about the toxic atmosphere at the college. The story, as it turned out, had some holes… and ultimately led to the Rolling Stone editors apologizing for failing to validate the facts in the case.

The whole incident brought to mind personal encounters with the media and, especially, the Tawana Brawley incident in Wappingers Falls NY where the community was still putting the case behind them when I worked there a decade after the incident. In brief, Ms. Brawley was found in a garbage bag with racial slurs written on her body and covered with feces. She claimed to have been abducted and raped by six white men, one of whom was the Dutchess County Assistant DA Steven Pagones. Ms. Brawley’s allegations drew national attention from the media and much sympathy from those who were convinced of the veracity of the story, a story some believe to be true to this day. A grand jury convened and determined that the entire episode was fabricated by Ms. Brawley to avoid severe punishment from her mother and step-father for staying out overnight. In the aftermath, Mr. Pagones sued Ms. Brawley and her advisors (one of whom was Al Sharpton) for defamation and won some restitution but lost his marriage and his reputation since the coverage of the accusations far outstripped the coverage of the defamation trial. A decade later, when I applied for the Superintendency in that district, my brother sent me an email reminding me of this case, as did virtually everyone who learned that I was appointed to the job. In the minds of the public, Wappingers was defined by the case and, presumably, had a shadow cast over it. Some of the staff members I worked with rolled their eyes when I mentioned this, with one in particular recalling the turmoil it created in the secondary schools in the district where he served as Principal at the time.

I have long been suspicious of media coverage given my first experiences as a student teacher in Philadelphia and my admiration for George Orwell’s analysis of political writing. By over-reporting on salacious incidents that prove to be untrue and under-reporting the slow, steady improvements that are taking place, the media play into the hands of those who claim the fundamental issues (e.g. racism and sexual assaults on campus) are groundless. And the collateral damage to the institutions and/or communities under attack is irreparable.

This post was triggered by an article in today’s NYTimes, titled “University of Virginia Officials Blast Media Coverage”. The article quotes the University of Virginia’s rector, George Keith Martin, and President Teresa Sullivan:

“Our tightly knit community has experienced the full fury of drive-by journalism in the 21st century — of callous indifference to the truth and callous indifference to the consequences,” he said, adding, “our great university’s reputation has been unfairly tarnished.”

Before reciting a long list of things the administration is doing to make the campus safer, Teresa A. Sullivan, the university president, said, “Our concern with sexual assault was not something that started with the Rolling Stone article.” And she said she felt compelled to state that “UVA’s climate and culture are generally healthy.”

As it turns out the rush to publish a salacious article has become a lose-lose proposition. UVA and fraternities on all campuses have their reputations tarnished and, as the penultimate paragraph notes, the false story will have negative percussions for those trying to change the culture on campuses as well:

Activists have voiced concerns that the Rolling Stone episode could undermine people’s willingness to believe victims, and weaken the university’s resolve to address the problem.

The solution? When someone approaches the media with a story like the Brawley incident or the UVA episode the writer should make certain that the source has done everything possible to seek redress through administrative and/or legal channels and if not, do thorough and complete research before publishing. As the Brawley incident indicates, it takes years to heal and as UVA is learning, the aftermath outlives “…the full fury of drive-by journalism in the 21st century”. 

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Using Science and Activism to Stop Testing

December 20, 2014 Leave a comment

Earlier this week, Andrew Cuomo stunned the natural gas industry and environmental activists with an announcement that he was going to indefinitely suspend fracking in NYS. An article in The Albany Project described the process activists used to persuade Cuomo to make this decision and, in doing so, provides a playbook to those who want to put an end to the high-stakes testing mania. And the analogy is apt given that in the end Cuomo used “scientific evidence” as the basis for his decision to deny fracking, and readers of this blog and students of statistics know that the “value added measure (VAM)” evaluations beloved by “reformers” are based on junk science and any reputable and respectable statistician or education assessment expert knows that there is NO scientific evidence supporting VAM based on standardized tests.

The Albany Project summarized the activists steps with these bullet points:

  • They got organized locally.
  • They got organized statewide.
  • They correctly identified the significant points of leverage in the machines and applied pressure that never stopped.
  • They took their case to their own city halls and made the issue real for people.
  • They backed a primary candidate with a funny name and no money who won half the counties in the state while amplifying the fracktivist message.
  • They changed the debate.
  • They moved public opinion significantly.
  • They severely restricted Cuomo’s freedom of movement on the issue.
  • They completely out-maneuvered Andrew Cuomo, eventually placing him in such a tight position that his only possible option was to defer to the science.

Using the environmentalists playbook, those in NYS who oppose the over-emphasis on standardized tests might try the following:

  • Begin and/or continue applying pressure to locally elected school boards to adopt resolutions refusing to use VAM as the basis for any evaluations and supporting parents who wish to opt out of the tests
  • If and when the State tries to compel the local districts and/or parents to comply with the implementation of the tests needed to implement the VAM mandate, file a lawsuit emphasizing that teacher evaluation and student assessment are local decisions… and in filing the suit be prepared to go all the way to the State Supreme Court to prove your point
  • Hound Governor Cuomo wherever he goes demanding an end to the overuse, misuse, and abuse of standardized testing
  • Make sure that the overuse, misuse, and abuse of standardized testing is an election issue locally and especially at the State level. This will help raise the public’s awareness of this issue.
  • Use Cuomo’s acknowledgment that he isn’t a scientist to compel him to also acknowledge that he isn’t a psychometrician and get him to turn over the ultimate decision on the use of VAM to an independent panel of experts.

It worked for the environmentalists because in the end politicians cannot argue against science… and science should always win when there is an argument.

David Brooks’ Cheap Shot at Teachers

December 19, 2014 Leave a comment

David Brooks can be infuriating… and this morning’s column was a case in point. In an essay that dealt with the need for police unions to be more flexible in dealing with disciplinary issues, he threw in this superfluous sentence:

Teachers’ unions have become the single biggest impediment to school reform.

The repetition of the “teachers unions vs. reformers” meme is maddening… and led me to leave this response:

When you write that “Teachers’ unions have become the single biggest impediment to school reform” I have to ask what kinds of “reform” you are talking about? Is it the use of standardized tests to evaluate their performance? If so teachers unions are absolutely right to block this because there is no evidence whatsoever that standardized tests can be used for this purpose. Is it the use of standardized tests to rate schools? If so teachers unions are absolutely right to block this because test results correlate with parents’ incomes and education levels. Is it the imposition of the Common Core? If so teachers unions are absolutely right to block this since there is substantial evidence that Common Core is developmentally flawed. Is it because unions oppose deregulated for-profit charter schools that underpay teachers, get free space, and only serve children from households with engaged parents? If so, they are right to stand up for the children who need the support of caring adults.

In Brook’s case I know “reform” means unregulated free markets… and we’ve all learned the hard way that in unregulated free markets the money flows up and stays there. That is not a recipe for a vibrant democracy or a vibrant economy.

King Leaves, Nothing Changes

December 19, 2014 Leave a comment

When John King, NYS’s “reform” commissioner announced he was leaving last week, the reaction among most progressive educators was one of relief and hope. But as the events of the past week indicate, the hope for a change in direction was misplaced because, as the Capital New York blog explained, and today’s NYImes article on Cuomo’s education agenda indicates, King’s departure won’t impact the education agenda one iota.

The Capital New York blog post offered this background information on the de facto role of the Commissioner and Board of Regents and why King’s departure is inconsequential in the scheme of things in Albany:

In part, that’s because Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature have been increasingly willing during King’s tenure to legislate education policy, even though the State Board of Regents and education department are statutorily tasked with shaping the state’s schools agenda….

Also, the governor and lawmakers are responsible for crafting the state budget, a process that gives them great control over which programs to fund and leaves education officials in an advisory role.

And what is the agenda the Governor asking the Board of Regents and Commissioner to implement? The Times article provides their synopsis of the steps King and Board of Regents Chair Meryl Tisch have taken to date:

Mr. King and Ms. Tisch have overseen a period of rapid change in the state’s education policies, from the rollout of standardized tests aligned to the Common Core curriculum standards to a new teacher evaluation system, both of which have caused enormous controversy and have turned Mr. King into something of a lightning rod among parents and teachers. The new, more difficult tests have caused large drops in passing rates across the state.

My own perspective is that King and Tisch have instituted a cycle of testing children to discredit public education to enable legislators to create a “free market” where deregulated for-profit non-union schools can undercut the cost of education in the existing regulated union schools need to pay. How? By paying teachers less; by offering fewer “frills” like art, music, and PE; by screening out children from homes of disengaged parents and/or students with special needs; and by using existing facilities for free.

The winners in this new paradigm are “reformers”, and, as the Times reports they are elated at the direction Cuomo, the Regents, AND the new Commissioner are headed:

“Governor Cuomo continues to show his genuine commitment to our state’s students and is asking all the right questions to get them the education they deserve,” said Jenny Sedlis, the executive director of StudentsFirst NY, a group that advocates tougher teacher evaluations, fewer teacher tenure protections and the creation of more charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run. Several of the group’s board members were major donors to Mr. Cuomo’s re-election campaign.

But here’s what the Times downplays: groups like StudentsFirst NY are fronts for the investors in for-profit schools, predominantly hedge fund managers who see low cost for-profit schools as the tax-funded cash cow of the future.

And one other fact the Times and most media outlets neglect: NYS’s ending formula short changes the districts that are already starved for resources and full of children being raised in poverty. If public education is the means for children born in poverty to have an opportunity to improve, the governor and the Regents are on the wrong track… and it’s clear they will be seeking another engineer to move the train forward to an even more inequitable future.

Goodbye NCLB and RTTT. Hello Privatization.

December 18, 2014 Leave a comment

After the Republicans swept into office a month ago, it is now clear that both NCLB and RTTT are going to be eliminated AND there will be an increase in the maximum amount available for Pell grants AND the incoming House Education Committee leader is pledging full funding for special education. Yet there is no sense of elation among those of us who have advocated for their demise. Why?

Progressive educators are sitting in stunned silence because they se that the increase in the number of Republican State legislatures and the increase in Republican governors the path for wholesale privatization and ALEC-inspired legislation is clear.

Progressive educators are dismayed because they see that NCLB’s punitive approach, RTTT’s overreach, and the CCSS backlash has played into the hands of privatizers and ALEC… and they see that if the GOP DOES increase funding for special education it will warm the hearts of local property taxpayers and school boards who have absorbed costs for special education for decades.

Here’s a dystopian scenario for the next few months:

  • Urban school districts are turned over to States who then turn them over to for-profit “school management” firms
  • Suburban and rural school boards, parents, and taxpayers are thrilled by the increase in special education funding and are elated that their state tax dollars will be “saved” by the state’s takeover of urban schools
  • Think tanks and university education and economics professors funded by the oligarchs will issue data supporting the cost-effectiveness of the privatized urban school districts
  • Voters with no children in public schools and/or no children in URBAN public schools will indicate their support for these changes in focus groups and neither party will want to undo what the 2015-16 legislature has done
  • Public education will exacerbate the economic divide instead of serving as a means of breaking the vicious cycle of poverty.

After November’s election results, the de-funding of the loathed RTTT, the likely demise of the CCSS, and the plans to fully fund special education it is hard to envision a different scenario that the one outlined above…. but one needs to be developed soon or social mobility will be even more challenging in the future.


“Bad Teacher” Meme Disproven… Again

December 17, 2014 Leave a comment

Today’s NYTimes had an article with this headline:

New York City Teachers Score Highly Under New Evaluation System

The lead paragraph trumpeted the good news:

Nine out of 10 New York City teachers received one of the top two rankings in the first year of a new evaluation system that was hailed as a better way of assessing how they perform, according to figures released on Tuesday.

This came on top of recent reports that only .4% of the teachers in the state were rated “ineffective”. One would think that politicians, education leaders, and parents would be thrilled with this finding… but instead here are the responses:

“Two percent (of the teachers receiving “ineffective” ratings in NYC) is worrisome,” Sandi Jacobs, the vice president and managing director for state policy at the National Council on Teacher Quality, said of the number of teachers found to be “developing” in the rest of the state. The council has pushed for states to do a better job of identifying ineffective teachers.

Timothy Daly, the president of theNew Teacher Project, an education reform group that advocates more rigorous teacher evaluations, said, “Many districts appear to have completely botched this.”

The New York State education commissioner, John B. King Jr., said in a statement: “I’m concerned that in some districts, there’s a tendency to blanket everyone with the same rating. That defeats the purpose of the observations and the evaluations, and we have to work to fix that.”

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has said he wants to strengthen the evaluation system. On Tuesday, a spokeswoman, Melissa DeRosa, said, “As the governor previously stated, stronger, more competitive, teacher evaluation standards will be a priority” for the next legislative session.

The “reformers” could “prove” students were failing by rigging the cut scores and will subsequently be able to use the cut scores to “prove” reforms work. But when it came to teacher evaluations, the only conclusion the “reformers” seem to reach is that the independent evaluators MUST BE WRONG because WE KNOW THAT BAD TEACHING IS THE REASON STUDENTS FAIL TESTS!  And we will continue pounding that message home and massaging the evaluation system until we can prove it! To paraphrase the t-shirt slogan: “Evaluation “reform” will continue until we prove teachers are failing”…

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The Privatization of York City Schools

December 16, 2014 Leave a comment

AlJazeera America posted an article describing the pending recommendation of the State-appointed “Chief Recovery Officer” to turn all York City schools over to for-profit charters. This action was made possible by enabling legislation passed during Governor Thomas Corbett’s soon-to-be-concluded term, legislation that effectively turned the entire operation of “failing” school districts over to the State. Why the PA legislature would think that state intervention is the solution to “failing schools” is a mystery: they assumed control of the Chester-Upland school district decades ago and it hasn’t improved and the sad saga of the State’s intervention in the Philadelphia district has been lamented in many posts on this site. The bottom line: there is NO evidence that ANY for-profit charter operation will improve student outcomes and NO evidence that the loss of local control contains costs in the schools without cutting services to unacceptably low levels.

And here’s what is really happening in the urban areas in state receivership:  democracy and local rule are being thrown out and a “chief recovery officer” appointed by the state is being given complete and total authority. Voters and taxpayers in York City, Chester-Upland, and Philadelphia should be pushing back on this and insisting that the local school board be given the tools (and money) needed to improve the schools. It doesn’t take an degree in political science or an MBA to see what is going on here: the plutocrats who funded ALEC are getting lower corporate taxes, the opportunity to make profits through the privatization of public services, and the elimination of democracy at the local level. Here’s hoping the incoming Governor will undo this… and here’s hoping his actions are reported in the mainstream media as well as ÂlJazeera.